I took a Richard Freeman Ashtanga Yoga workshop at Space Yoga in Taipei.
It was my first time and he reminded me a lot of Agent Smith from the movie The Matrix, or should I say the actor who played him, Hugo Weaving. Richard Freeman's agent smith has more of a sense of humor, no sun glasses and slightly bushier eyebrows.
The prevalent theme or idea was that of unifying prana and apana, getting them to work together. One reason is to help raise kundalini or conscious energy. Another reason, more pragmatic (but, I believe, also contained within the first reason) so that the body as a whole works well together.
Prana and apana refer to energy flows and their direction.
One way of unifying these two energy flows is to focus on two different points, one while inhaleing and the other while exhaling.
A point 12 fingers above the crown of the head called dvadashanta is associated with prana.
Focus on this point while exhaling (and at the same time relax the roof of the mouth, the soft palate.) The idea of focusing on this point while exhaling is to help unify prana and apana while exhaling. Meanwhile, the perineum, or the point that mula banda is centered on is associated with apana and so focus on this point while inhaling to unify prana and apana.
By focusing on mula banda while inhaling, we can expand our awareness and feel our lower body. However since inhales are naturally lifting, a part of our attention is already on our upper body so that we tie the upper body and lower body together by focusing on mula while inhaling.
Likewise, focusing on the point above the crown while exhaling our awareness radiates from this point to our upper body. And since exhales tend to move downwards we then become aware of upper and lower body while exhaling.
At least that's the theory.
Apana is associated with exhaling and one thing that you can do while exhaling is activate the pubococcygeus muscle.
It attaches between the tail bone and the pubic bone and for that reason one way to activate it is to focus on pulling the tail bone towards the pubic bone.
Since this muscle attaches between the tailbone and the pubic bone, and because its fibers are aligned with these two points it make sense to pull the tail bone towards the pubic bone to activate pubococcygeus.
Plus, the tail bone and sacrum can more slightly with respect to the pelvis and so by pulling the tail bone forwards you help to tilt the sacrum with respect to the pelvis.
This action may also help to stabilize the sacrum with respect to the pelvis.
One of Richards suggestions for finding the pc muscle was to use the rectus abdominus at the end of an exhale in movement three of a sun salutation, while forward bending. You squeeze the abs at the end of the exhale, bending your spine forwards. Continue the line of this contraction past the pubic bone towards your tail bone. The contraction could feel like you are pulling the bottom of your sternum towards you tailbone via the pubic bone. That then activates pubococcygeus.
You then try to keep this action while inhaling.
Other apanic actions can include pulling the sitting bones inwards, (after pulling tailbone to pubic bone) and then spreading the gluteus maximus (or blossoming them like a flower.)
Pranic actions include spreading the wings of the kidneys.
This can also mean lifting the back ribs or lifting the back of the diaphragm. I felt it mostly as a lifting and spreading of the back ribs as if some one had laid hands on the back of my ribcage just behind my kidneys and was pushing forwards and up on my lower ribs. He also described it as "stretching the back of the diaphram" or perhaps it was "reaching the back of the diaphram upwards."
Following this action the instruction was to open the heart.
I found that opening the back ribs prior to opening the heart felt very supportive. And it also felt like it make controlling the shoulder blades easier.
I only attended the Saturday workshops. In the morning Richard went over sun salutations and a selection of standing poses, seated poses and finishing poses.
In the afternoon session he taught us how to stretch our psoas and also how to support our body using apanic and pranic energy in wheel pose. We also had a look at some preparations for headstand and one technique for making chakrasana (backwards rolling) easier.
I found the afternoon session the most enlightening but both were really good.
Although he didn't go over handstand I found that some of his instructions helped make handstand, or pulling up into handstand easier.
The details below are how I remember what he taught filled also with my own observations or correlations. One of the nicest things for me about getting to work with Richard was that he affirmed some things that I already knew, added pieces that I didn't know and also provided a systemized context for putting it all together.
Even nicer was the fact that most of it is all grounded in an awareness and understanding of anatomy.
In the first movement of a sun salutation, lifting the arms while inhaling, Richard had us expanding our kidney wings and heart and as we lifted our arms he told us to spread the shoulder blades, and then reach the outer edges upwards while reaching our arms upwards.
The head position in this movement is behind the arms, as if the arms are a guillotine which cut of the head below the chin.
Lifting the lower ribs and then the front of the ribcage gives the base of the neck a firm foundation prior to bending the neck backwards. He also had us looking down our noses as we did so. The reason was so that we bent our entire neck rather than just bending at the base of the skull.
Other instructions, while lifting the arms included:
As you lift your arms widen your collarbones. But even prior to this or as you do this, widen the bottom tips of the shoulder blades away from each other. The inner edges of the shoulder blades will them move down.
All of these actions together lift the ribs and give the shoulders a firm foundation.
I think believe that the rib actions and shoulder actions in combination give the lower fibers of the serratus anterior a firm foundation. They can then be used to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage.
While bending forwards he had us maintaint the openness of our ribcage for as long as possible.
Actually he described the sensation of bending forwards as similar to vomitting.
Only near the end of the movement did he have us bending our spine forwards. Again, the biggest reason for doing this was to help unify prana and apana. By keeping the ribcage open you bring prana into an apanic (exhaling) movement. Then at the end of the movement you can work at finding your pc muscle between tailbone and pubic bone.
To practice upward dog he had us in sphinx pose, on our elbows. The idea was to pull the body forwards by pulling the elbows back. Pulling the arms back helped to pull the chest forwards at the shoulders.
This was the same action he had us try to do in up dog. With hands on the floor we could pull our hands back and with that same action pull the chest forwards.
So that the arms stayed active he had us bend our elbows just a tiny bit.
To unify apana and prana, he had us spread our kidneys and lift the heart in upward dog. In total, these actions, pulling the hands back and the chest forwards, opening the kidneys and lifting the heart could help prevent "crunching" the lower back.
I think it was in this pose that he suggests spreading wings at the base of the skull. Whether it was or not the metaphor, when used, felt effective. I believe it is designed to help us activate the muscles at the back of the neck that attach the top of the cervical vertebrae to the occiput. (Recus capitis posterior, obliquus capitis superior, obliquus capitis inferior.)
One of the interesting things about the standing poses, and about all the poses in general, was that the details for getting in and out of a pose where different from those of actually holding the pose.
When getting in and out of the pose the emphasis seemed to be on first activating mula bandha.
If you think of mula bandha as a stabiilzing action (rooting downwards) this makes sense. To me it was like one of those big cranes on wheels that put out stabilizers when lifting heavy equipement.
Mula bandha was our stabilizer for lifting our body up out of poses, or helping to support it while we moved into poses.
How do we activate mula? Activate pubococygeus.
After the workshop I tried doing a forward bend while keeping mula bandha engaged. I'm not an asthanga practitioner and so one of the things I like about my own practice (and this is a limitation) is taking my time to find my way into a pose. Plus, at the workshop I was busy trying to remember the things that Richard was talking about. Anyway, I tried a standing forward bend while keeping my pc muscle engaged. I focused on pulling my tailbone towards my pubic bone. I went quite deep quite quickly and forward bending is not one of my strong points.
I can't remember the details of what Richard said while doing Forward bend but just trying to activate mula bandha helped.
In trikonasana, and also in side angle pose, he talked about primary rotation of the legs. This was what you did to get into the pose. In the case of triangle the back leg rolled inwards while you where getting into the pose. Then once you were in the pose the back leg rolled outwards. This to me was like the act of putting up a tent and then tightening the guy wires once the tent was up.
We could do the same two actions in side angle pose. Roll the back thigh inwards while getting in to the pose then outwards while holding it.
In side angle he had us bending our neck backwards to look up to the middle of our upper arm. But prior to that he had us spreading the wings of our kidneys and then opening our heart.
The arm instructions where the same as when lifting the arms in a sun salute. The shoulder blade wraps or slides around the side of the ribcage and then moves upwards towards the neck.
With respect to the neck action, somehow he got us to bend our entire neck backwards.
In the prasarita series he suggested that we not over emphasise pressing down through the outer edges of our feet. Our lower legs would otherwise begin to smoke. I think it was in this pose that he told us to engage all three arches of the feet.
My own interpretation of this instruction: press down through the outer arches but make sure that you press down through the root of the big toe just as much.
Actually, excessive pressure through the outer arches can be balanced or reduced by slightly turning the shins inwards. This action, if slight, can sink the inner arch of the foot just enough to take the tension out of the outer shin.
One of the key actions that Richard mentioned with respect to exhaling was softening the roof of the mouth. This was as you drew your awareness to the point 12 fingers above the crown.
He frequently mentioned how this would still the mind.
Why this is so I'm not sure.
A couple of other questions to ask with respect to this is
One of the greatest entertainments for any ashtanga yoga teacher is to slowly count down the number of breaths while adjusting students. One of the problems is that there can be more than enough students to take up the normal five breaths for holding a pose. And so one more breath turned into 1/2 more or a breath, 1/4, 1/16th, 1/32 and finally 1/64th.
In bridge pose shoulderstand he had us pulling our pelvis forwards using our hamstrings. This was a way of using the apanic part of our body in this pose. Plus, he had us activate our pubococygeus. We used the same actions in the afternoon while doing wheel pose. And while doing so keeping the shins and thighs parallel.
He didn't specifically mentione the gluteus maximus, but I felt mine activating in this pose.
He did at one point state that the gluteus maximus is an often overlooked muscle and so I would take that to mean use it where ever required.
I think a lot of Richard's humour may have been lost due to translation time lag or people where too busy focusing on feeling their body, which I guess isn't a bad thing. And maybe my own sense of humour is lacking or somewhat deviant in that I found this statement "this fish has legs" (or something like that) quite amusing.
Anyway, after the bridge shoulder stand this was the final pose (other than corpse) for the morning session. He had us keep our legs on the floor for this one and perhaps it was during this pose that he talked about spreading wings at the base of the occiput. Here again, to bend the entire neck backwards he had us looking down our nose.
I never really considered how important the connection of the psoas to the 12th rib was until I went to Richards class. It is important because it gives a way of stretching the psoas by using the arms... or the ribcage.
Laying down you can press your legs down. If you inward rotate your thighs, at least enough that the knees point upwards, this action can help to lengthen or stabilize the bottom of the psoas. From there you can stretch your psoas by expanding the kidney wings, or by reaching your lower back ribs away from the pelvis. From there you can further lenghten it by reaching through your arms and shoulder blade.
If you do one side at a time, bending the non-stretching side knee, you might find and even greater stretch.
This could be really useful in side angle pose, since the positioning of the upper side of the body from arm to leg, is similar.
We did wheel pose about 10 of fifteen times. I didn't count but it was a lot. But, we only held each one for a few breaths.
This was perhaps the nicest I've ever felt in wheel pose and the easiest time I've had getting into it and even holding it.
The first step, either before lifting the hips or while lifting the hips was to activate mula. Then use the legs to pull the pelvis forwards. This action was to help engage the hamstrings.
I think that to preven the pelvis from going to far forwards (to preven your knees from going to far forwards) focus on pulling forwards and then focus even more of pushing the pelvis up.
The pranic actions, initiated either once on the top of the head or while going up onto the top of the head, included expanding the kidney wings and opening the heart.
Then while lifting up, spread and reach through the shoulder blades. The feeling for this action is simliar to the laying down psoas stretch. Over all it feels like the legs are pressing the pelvis up, and then the spine and arms reach down into the floor.
Obviously your hands are stopped becuse they are on the floor, but that is the feeling I had.
Since the hands are on the floor the stretching actually translates into a push. You use your upper body to help push your pelvis forwards and up.
I did find that my lower back got a bit tight, but then I just relaxed it and it felt fine.
Richard took a bit of time giving us tips on rolling backwards and that was one thing that I didn't find helpful. Though the instuctions where entertaining. (Try to eat a pizza with your elbows straight. The idea was to illustrate the mobility of our shoulders.)
For headstand preparation he had us to dolphin. However instead of keeping the head on the floor we reach the chest between the arms and touched the crown of the head to the floor infront of the elbows.
We also did some similiar actions against a wall.
Alot of what I got from Richard Freemans' workshop were philosophical in nature.
Hearing it second hand I wasn't sure I agreed with his take on prana and apana, but experiencing it first hand from him it made a lot of sense. Going back to the ideas of prana and apana, the way I normally think of these qualities is in terms of yang (prana) and yin (apana) or expression (prana) and foundation (apana).
By expression I mean what can happen as a result of creating a foundation.
With a foundation you can build a house or tower. The house or tower is the expression of the building but the foundation, just as important even if under ground or hidden is also a part of the building. Or you could think of a sword with the sharp and pointy bit as the expression and the handle as the part that you hold on to that allows you to control the sharp end.
A kite won't fly unless you have a piece of string tied to it and the string held down. The string is apana and the wind prana. Together they enable the kite to fly.
A balloon filled with helium has prana in the form of helium that gives it lift and apana in the form of the elastic material of the balloon.
Our bodies are more or less tied together by skin, connective tissue, ligaments, tendons and muscles. When we do a yoga pose we stretch that bag of bones to the limit. We become more alive. Imagine a balloon only half full of air or a kite with a wing torn. By completely unifying apana and prana we become a full balloon or a kite that flies.
And so another way of understanding prana and apana is that they are ideas that help us to feel and control and unify our whole body in what we are trying to do.
Apana can be the more relaxed part while prana can be the more active part.
In a full yoga pose where we unify the whole body (or try to), we feel both the active and the less active, the strong and the stretched, the open and the not so open.
As an example, warrior 2. The front arm, the one we are looking act is obvious and easy to reach forwards. The back arm is less obvious. We sometimes have to be reminded to reach it back. But we could also think of the front and back of our body in the same terms. Likewise our front and back leg.
In a side bending pose, the pranic, yang or "obvious" aspect is the side being stretched, but if we focus on the other side we can deepen the stretch. One way is by activating the muscles of the side not being stretched. So if bending to the right, we can tighten the muscles on the right side of our body to stretch the left side.
One of the things that richard mentioned is that techniques are like different roads to get to the same place (those aren't his words exactly. But I think his meaning is the same.) He did say that techniques don't always work. One day it works then the next day… And so the idea is to feel your body, be alive in your body (and again not his exact words but the intent I believe is the same) Feel your body and respond to what you feel. If you are full of techniques then use the technique that feels right right now. Or move between them all. Find the middle road that takes you to where you are going.
And here I would insert, limits are a way for us to learn, a way for teachers to communicate to their students. But they are a starting point, a common reference. Once a student has learned to activate their hamstrings, say by pushing their heels down, they can use that feeling as a reference point. They no longer need to just push their heels down. They can explore around that feeling or that action or use it as a reference from which they can learn to feel and control other actions.
In a forward bend pressing the heels down might be a good starting point but from there you learn to press your shins or thighs down or learn to activate the buttocks. And then you play around between all of those actions.
And this was another very important image that Richard brought up.
Patanjali, a radiant being with 1000 snake heads. Imagine if each one of those heads had only an IQ of 1. In sum total they'd have an IQ of 1000. But then imagine that actually the number of heads is infinite
One "take" on that is that each cell within our body has intelligence. If we learn to switch off our thinking mind we can let the intelligence of each one of those cells take over. So long as we have a clear idea of what we are trying to do, that idea can guide each of the individual intelligences within our body. We then don't have to focus on controlling our body. We lead it with a clear idea and get out of the way.
Instead we experience it and become the observer or our selves.