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Iyengar Yoga

Iyengar 201: Build Resilience by Adding Variety to Your Yoga Practice

Carrie Owerko shows us how repetition and novelty are both important in daily practice.

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Join Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Carrie Owerko for our new online course Iyengar 201—a mindful and fun journey into a more advanced practice. You’ll learn different pose modifications and the creative use of props, all designed to help you work with physical and mental challenges. And you’ll walk away with the skills you need to adapt to whatever life throws at you, on and off the mat. Sign up now.

At 55 years young, I am realizing how important it is to cultivate resilience in my yoga practice and teaching. If we are too hard on ourselves, it becomes more and more difficult to do new, challenging, or unfamiliar things. But if we are able to watch our body, mind, and behavior during times of change (which is basically all the time, since we are always changing) and be compassionate with what we observe, we build the courage necessary to face change (and take risks) with friendliness, openness, and curiosity. 

Over the last decade I witnessed my elderly parents become more and more isolated, with very limited exposure to new or novel experiences. This became a problem when life circumstances required a really big change. My Mom, whom I knew to be an adventurous and open-minded person, became more and more fearful. She disengaged from the things she loved. Her world shrank. There were many reasons for her fear and her resistance to change. She became depressed, which was completely understandable, especially after the death of my Dad. Grief can be devastating. She had also lost her sight several years earlier, and this visual impairment made any type of change disorienting and difficult. She has also endured a few unfortunate falls (one that caused significant injury), and yet she is—in her own way—one of the most resilient people I know.

Her story is one of the many reasons why I am more and more interested in what makes us capable of embracing change, even difficult change, with a sense of possibility and potential for growth. We still feel fear, fall down, and experience our own resistance. How we act in the face of fear, get up after falling down, and take part in the process of change is important. We work on this in yoga.

Practice helps us learn how to stay engaged, continue to grow, and even find joy in the challenges that change presents (in fact, a recent study finds that yoga and meditation may enhance stress resilience and well-being). Practice helps us see that we are not static, fixed, unchanging entities. We are actually dynamic, ever-changing processes. The repetition inherent in daily practice is extremely important, as is the addition of variation and novelty, which I focus on in my upcoming Iyengar 201 course. It can be invigorating and empowering to get out of our comfort zone. It is exciting to learn new things. It can be awkward at times, but it’s so worthwhile, especially if we are compassionate with ourselves in the process. This compassion can be like a kind of grace, because we give ourselves permission to be, to change, and to grow. We grow into the type of person who can bounce back after setbacks, get up after falling down, and stay present in the often unpredictable flow of life. We grow into more resilient beings.

Build Resilience with Salamba Sarvangasana (and Family)

Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), and related poses, including Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose), bolster both courage and contentment. They can be deeply nourishing for the nervous system. As you become more familiar with Salamba Sarvangasana, you will be able to explore some of its many variations. The variations are helpful because we are practicing staying calm and present to change as it presents itself in the pose. By letting go of the idea that the pose has to be done one way, we begin to understand the pose more deeply, and ourselves more deeply in the process.

Try this simple variation of Viparita Karani. It is fairly accessible for almost all levels of practice, and helps us explore our capacity to balance and relax at the same time.

How to: Place two to three blankets on a sticky mat near a wall. Turn the blankets so they are long enough to support your entire torso from your shoulders to your buttocks. Fold the sticky mat over the blankets like a wrap for a sandwich filling (the blankets are the filling). Place your shoulders on this “wrap” and the soles of your feet on the wall with your legs bent. Keep your head on the floor. As you exhale, lift your pelvis up. Then place a yoga block under your sacrum. Tilt the block so the end that is closer to the wall is a little higher. This way, your lower back will feel a sense of traction and elongation. Then straighten your legs and rest your heels on the wall. If you feel stable, bring your feet off the wall as you take your legs to a vertical position. And if that feels stable, try spreading your legs wide apart. Observe how you are floating or balancing up on this block. Relax as much as possible without becoming inattentive. If your attention starts to drift, you might lose your balance. After a few minutes, bring your legs together and rest your feet back on the wall for a few more minutes. Then remove the block, come down, and slide your back onto the floor.