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Posts Tagged ‘uddiyana’

Mallakhamb: What I learnt from Practicing Yoga Postures on Poles and Ropes in India

by Simon Borg-Olivier

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Vrshikasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Vrshikasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988;

Many people in Australia and around the world are now practicing postures and movements, similar to those seen in hatha yoga, on poles in ‘Pole dance’ studios and on hanging circus silks and rope inversion swings. I was fortunate enough to learn how to do yoga on poles and ropes two decades ago in India in the traditional Indian training system called Mallakhamb.
Lessons I learnt from practicing yoga postures on poles and ropes in India:
1. Move your spine actively from your core.
2. Use your inner thigh muscles more in your ground based exercise.
3. Use the muscles at the back of your knees more in your ground based exercise.
4. Learn to move slowly when it is easy to go quickly into a posture and learn to move fast when it is easy to go slowly.
5. Do not be dependant on the external force of gravity to move your body into positions
6. Strengthen your back muscles by practicing bending backwards using your back muscles.
7. Release and relax your back muscles by using your bending forward muscles and breathing into your abdomen

Mallakhamb:

Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport in which the practitioner practices yoga-like postures and movements on a vertical wooden pole or a rope. The name Mallakhamb is derived from the terms malla which means a wrestler and khamb which means a pole. Mallakhamb can therefore be translated to English as “the wrestler’s pole”.

I was inspired to write this blog after the amazing experiences I had learning with the wonderful teachers and students of the ‘Maharashtra Mandel’ in Tilak Road, Pune, India. I had the honour of training with these guys every afternoon on all the 8 x one month long trips I had in Pune to study with Sri BKS Iyengar from 1986 to 1997. I would usually do practice or class with Guruji (Mr Iyengar) or his amazing son Prashant ji or brilliant daughter Geeta ji in the morning and then practice pole or rope Mallakhamb in the afternoon.

Types of Mallakhamb:

There are about 25 types of Mallakhamb available but for the competitions that take place throughout India there are three main variations of Mallakhamb. These are fixed pole Mallakhamb, hanging pole Mallakhamb and rope Mallakhamb. Other exotic variations include Mallakhamb balancing on glass bottles.

Fixed Pole or fixed Mallakhamb:

In this variation, a vertical wooden pole is fixed in the ground and the participant performs various acrobatic postures and movements while hanging on the pole. Mallakhamb, which is a type of physical yoga on a pole, gave me such insight into ground-based yoga. I had to learn to use the inner thigh muscles, as well as the muscles at the back of my knees, and the pulling muscles of my arms to hold the pole, and this I then really put into my ground-based yoga practice and teaching. Just before starting this practice in 1986 I had completely torn the ACL ligament in my knee and damaged my lower back in accidents and it was this pole practice and the understanding it gave me about bandha, floor yoga and really moving from the core that helped me understand what many of my teachers including Sri BKS Iyengar and Sri K Pattabhi Jois were trying to teach me, and also helped me heal my injured knees and spine. The amazing Shandor Remete was my mentor and teacher in Australia at that time and he managed to get some traditional poles into our school in Sydney so we could also practice there (Thanks to our friends Sean and Suzi for making these for us). We had these poles at Yoga Synergy in Sydney for quite some time (photos coming) and I would so love to now get some more for my kids to use (and myself too maybe!). However, while I used to only climb the pole, my incredible teachers and fellow students in Pune used to do crazy things (watch the videos below) like run for the pole and do an aerial backwards flip and catch the pole with one leg and then spiral to the top of the pole and do a one arm handstand! Actually I first learnt the one arm balance (Eka hasta mayurasana) on a pole in Pune in 1986 and managed to even chip my front tooth on my first attempt when I fell from the top of the pole! Exhilarating stuff for sure!

 

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing kapotasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing kapotasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988; In this photo I am on a short ‘practice’ pole. It is quite similar to what Sri BKS Iyengar would teach us. This can be great to relive some types of back pain.

 

 

One thing that really gave me an idea of how challenging this ‘sport’ is and how amazing the practitioners in India are was when I was invited to be part of the Dasaran competition where you have to see how many times you can complete a round of Dasaran on the pole without getting off. One round of Dasaran involves grabbing the pole with your arms above your head and briefly holding postures such as the boat pose (navasana), then holding the pole with your thighs in sort of twisted plough pose (halasana), then releasing your arms and coming to the locust pose (salabhasana) where you are squeezing the pole between your legs and supporting yourself horizontally in a backward-bending (spinal extension) posture, the grabbing the pole again with your hands (and still your thighs) in a type of bow posture (padangustha dhanurasana) and then completing the round by releasing your legs back to the boat pose (navasana) so you can start again. I having already done many years of teaching and pyracticing yoga and thinking I was reasonably fit managed to do 3 rounds Dasaran. The other competitors (boys and girls aged between 7 and 30 years old) all egged me on (I only wanted to do two rounds actually) and they politely and enthusiastically clapped as I dropped to the ground. I felt elated for a few moments, but then the next competitor (age 12) got on the pole and did 256 Dasaran without getting off the pole once! I think I shrunk about 50 cm that day!

In this video you see some highlights of some recent Mallakhamb experts performing. It is quite amazing.

 

Here is a beautiful video of a young boy practicing his mallakhamb routine for a competition.

 

 

Rope Mallakhamb

In rope Mallakhamb, the practitioner performs postures and movements while hanging from a rope suspended from the roof or a support. This variation is the only Mallakhamb that is generally practiced by girls. Boys also practice on the rope but girls rarely go on the poles in India. Often adepts will gracefully ‘fall’ from one advanced yoga posture tied into the rope to another equally challenging posture two or three metres further down the pole.

 

While practicing on a rope I had to learn to work against the flow of gravity, using the muscles at the back of my knees, the muscles of my toes, and the pulling muscles of my arms to hold onto the harsh hemp rope, and this I then I really put into my ground-based yoga practice and teaching.

 

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing eka pada viparita dandasaana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing eka pada viparita dandasaana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

 

The very first time I saw rope Mallakhamb was in the same room shown in the photo here but a few years earlier. It was night time and so much darker than shown here. I was talking to the gentleman on the right about pole yoga and at the time but I didnt know that they had rope yoga too. Then suddenly the young girl on the left of the photo (who was a few years younger than shown here) leaped up into the air wobbled around a bit, went higher and higher and was suddenly floating near the ceiling in perfect Jnana mudra padmasana (lotus posture with each thumb and first finger touching). My eyes only see one tenth of normal without my glasses and so not only did i not see any rope that she had in fact very quickly climbed and wrapped her feet around. I was simply convinced, for at least ten mesmerising seconds, that this amazing young girl had the power of levitation and had just leapt up into the and was floating in lotus posture near the ceiling.

 

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Niralamba eka pada sirsasana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Niralamba eka pada sirsasana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

 

Now you can see many years later, in Australia and elsewhere, people doing similar exercises to those done with rope mallakhamb with long hanging silk cloths. I tried the silk cloths some time ago at Circus Arts In Byron Bay and they are such an accessible delight that I really recommend if you can find them. The old ropes we used in India were so rough that if you didn’t really hold on tightly with your knees you would for sure get rope burn. Each day I got rope burn between my big and second toe, and also on the back of my knees. I thus also walked very strange, like a cowboy, after these practices, but it was so much fun doing it!

 

At home we have a rope swing (inversion swing). I regularly practice many of the rope yoga exercises on this swing.  Our children also use it a lot. Rope swings, hanging circus silks and rope Mallakhamb can be excellent training for your core because you need to move your spine actively with your core muscles. Therefore, you end up getting a very strong that can also be easily relaxed, a very flexible spine and good health in your internal organs.

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Urdhva mukha pascimotanasa on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Urdhva mukha pascimotanasa on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

 

Many modern books suggest that modern yoga postures come from Western gymnastics brought to India in the last century; but when Bianca Machliss and I studied here we were shown books with drawings of what essentially are yoga postures on poles and ropes that they told us were around 1000 years old. Although the Mallakhamb is thought of as martial arts not so much yoga. To me the physical form of the postures looks the same in both, so whenever I hear someone suggest that Indian yoga postures come from the gymnastics of the West, I simply laugh.

 

Hanging Mallakhamb

Similar to the fixed pole Mallakhamb, the hanging Mallakhamb is a wooden pole that is shorter in length than the standard pole Mallakhamb and is hung from a chain with hooks. There is a gap between the ground and the bottom of the Mallakhamb, which means there is the added difficultly here that whole pole can swing and is therefore moving while you try to jump on it and get in and out of postures. I tried this once but it was much too difficult for me to get anywhere really.

 

TO MY DEAR MALLAKHAMB TEACHERS:

I feel so privileged and honoured to have trained a bit with the teachers and students of Maharashtra Mandel, Pune, who have helped me grow so much in my yoga. My Mallakhamb teachers included Indian national champions such as Amar Peth, Yogesh Yeole, Sunil Roti and Aparna Dighe. Thank you so much to all of you and also all the others who’s names have temporarily slipped from my memory but taught me and trained along side me. Please contact me if you read this, as I would love to acknowledge you properly here and make contact again.

 

Back in my pole yoga days in Australia after learning a bit in Pune, India. I just found these dusty old photos yesterday and I will put them with my recent blog on mallakhamb (pole yoga). I learnt so much about ground based yoga from this old Indian sport. Even at my fittest I was never a match for the amazing Indian children between the ages of 6 and 26 who did this every evening during the week and both mornings on the weekend. In fact there were some monkeys where I was living in Pune who used to climb everywhere but the kids that taught me this did more incredible things on poles than the monkeys. It is interesting to see how popular #poledancing , with its similar movements, is in the west these days and how in the west it is mainly girls that do it but in India yoga on poles is only for the boys and the girls do yoga on ropes.

Back in my pole yoga days in Australia after learning a bit in Pune, India. I just found these dusty old photos yesterday and I will put them with my recent blog on mallakhamb (pole yoga). I learnt so much about ground based yoga from this old Indian sport. Even at my fittest I was never a match for the amazing Indian children between the ages of 6 and 26 who did this every evening during the week and both mornings on the weekend. In fact there were some monkeys where I was living in Pune who used to climb everywhere but the kids that taught me this did more incredible things on poles than the monkeys. It is interesting to see how popular #poledancing , with its similar movements, is in the west these days and how in the west it is mainly girls that do it but in India yoga on poles is only for the boys and the girls do yoga on ropes.

 

A. Pole Mallakhamb design; B. 18th Century Mallakhamb exponent and resurger; CDE.12th century Mallakhamb references in the classic Manasollasa (1135 AD) by Somesvara Chalukya

A. Pole Mallakhamb design; B. 18th Century Mallakhamb exponent and resurger; CDE.12th century Mallakhamb references in the classic Manasollasa (1135 AD) by Somesvara Chalukya

Indian boys practicing Mallakhamb by the beach in Mumbai, 1990

Indian boys practicing Mallakhamb by the beach in Mumbai, 1990

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Kundalini, Chakras, Prana and Two Real Intertwining Snakes

Figure 1: (a) Top: Chakras and how to activate them; 
Bottom Left: (b) Intertwining snake snakes in my house; 
Bottom Right: (c) Nadis and cakras from http://edgeba.webs.com/thekundaliniserpent.htm
(Please click on the photo to get full enlarged version)

by Simon Borg-Olivier

In this blog I want to discuss some points about Kundalini energy and Chakras. Much of the information available on the subject of Kundalini is esoteric and so not easy to justify with rational conventional science. I think the best explanation of the science of kundalini comes from Jana Dixon and her excellent book ‘The Biology of Kundalini”. The main purpose of this blog is to elucidate a few simple points that relate to the physical locations of the chakras and how controlling these can help you to improve the health of your spine, your internal organs and your circulation.

In Figure 1b and the in the attached video below are two beautiful 3 metre pythons that live in our house (mostly in the roof). My herpetologist mentor Professor Rick Shine says that they are either making love or wrestling for dominance for mating. Actually seeing them do this is very rare and special and so reminds me of many amazing things including the double stranded helix of the DNA molecule that holds the blueprints of our genetics. They also remind me of the mystery of kundalini, the coiled serpent-like energy lying mostly dormant at the base of our spines.

The inter-coiling of two snakes is such a common symbol in our mythology that is represented most obviously in the Caduceus, which is the staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology. One myth suggests that Hermes saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. He separated them with a wand and thus brought about peace between them. As a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of love and peace. This is related to the seemingly combatant sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems coiling up the spinal cord. Mostly the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are seen to have opposing functions, the sympathetic is for ‘flight, fight or freeze’ while the parasympathetic is for ‘relaxation, recovery and rejuvenation’. In many situations one will dominate and subdue the other, but in some situations such as in heightened sexual arousal both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together in harmony to hopefully create love and peace.

In hatha yoga the two spiralling snakes are referred to as the nadis (subtle channels) Ida and Pingala and the spinal cord contains the sushumna nadi. When viewed from above the head the spiralling of these channels looks like the yin yang symbol or even the ancient swastika symbol . The places where the snake-like spiral nadis crossover up the trunk is the supposed location of the main chakras (energy centres) of the body. Each of these main chakras corresponds to and seemingly has relationships with main endocrine glands and also major nerve plexi. The ‘opening’ or ‘unlocking’ of, and the voluntary control of the chakras is a major aim in hatha yoga and can in fact be the tool that allows yoga and yoga therapy to be effective. In order to heal any part of the body especially the internal organs or body systems the only thing we can actually control is our mind, which can control muscles, which can affect posture movement and breathing.

A common belief in yoga circles is that a key step to allowing the kundalini energy to rise up the spine is to open up or unblock the chakras. The question is …‘What does this mean on a scientific level? In this blog I want to describe prana (energy or life energy) and, what can be thought of as its more subtle form, chitta (information or consciousness), then describe a few key points related to the regions associated with the main spinal chakras and their associated nerves plexi and endocrine glands. These are the points that the mind can focus on while regulating posture, movement and breathing. These points can make any physical yoga practice as well as any physical exercise or therapy safer and more effective to give health and longevity as the main aim and strength, flexibility and endurance as by-products.

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Accessible Spinal Movements for Internal Health, External Energy and a Pain Free Back

Basic Spinal Movements

In this blog I will be examining a sequence of postures done from a simple standing posture that in its simplest form involves moving the trunk and spine into its 8 main ‘pure’ positions. This is one of the most effective and accessible practices for anyone and can give tremendous release of back and other pain as well as significantly increasing energy levels, improving functional core strength, reducing stress and improving the health of your internal organs.

The key to effective spinal movements and core stabilisation is to always be able to breathe into the abdomen using the diaphragm and always initiate each spinal movement from the region of the navel and the ‘navel spine’ (L4-L5). Once you release the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation that many people habitually use to ‘engage their core’ using abdominal breathing or at least the feeling that you can breathe into the abdomen, then the spine is free to move from its base at the ‘navel spine’ (L4-L5) near the sacrum. Once you move your spine using the internal forces (trunk muscles) rather than external forces such as gravity, the use of another limb or momentum, then this will create tremendous core strength. In other words to move the spine you must initiate movement from the core with a sense that the core feels relaxed enough to breathe there. At this point the abdomen may feel quite soft to touch. However, once the movement begins the abdomen begins to firm because it is moving. This is an important key to functional mobile core strength and a pain free back.

Figure 1: The list of main postures in the spinal movements sequence is as follows:
1. ‘Complete spinal lengthening posture’ (Urdhva hasta merudanda 
tadâsana)
2. ‘Back spinal lengthening posture’ (Pascima merudanda tadâsana)
3. ‘Front spinal lengthening posture’ (Purva merudanda tadâsana)
4. ‘Side spinal lengthening posture’ (Parsva merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)
5. ‘Twisted spinal lengthening posture (Parivrtta merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)

This simple but effective spinal movements sequence forms the basis of the YogaSynergy Fundamentals Sequence as taught in our 120 hour online course

A. Structure of the ‘Spinal Movements Sequence’ (Meru danda tada vinyâsa):

The eight main movements of the spine that are practiced in this sequence (vinyâsa) are actually 4 opposing pairs of movements. These are:

1a. ‘Shortening’ (Spinal compression) (standing with a ‘neutral spine’),

1b. ‘Lengthening’ (Spinal traction) (standing with a straight spine),

2a. ‘Forward bending’ (Spinal flexion) (lengthening the back of the body),

2b. ‘Backward bending’ (Spinal extension) (lengthening the front of the body),

3a, 3b. ‘Sideways bending’ to right and left (Spinal lateral flexion) and

4a, 4b. ‘Twisting’ (Spinal axial rotation) to right and to left side

The purpose of this smooth flowing and dynamic linked sequence of postures (vinyâsa) is to enliven the spine by moving each vertebra.

This sequence acts directly on the spine by guiding it to move with its own volition. The shoulders and hips are used to assist the spine in order to utilise and enhance the connections within the body.

The actual list of main postures in this sequence is as follows:

  1. ‘Complete spinal lengthening posture’ (Urdhva hasta merudanda tadâsana)
  2. ‘Back spinal lengthening posture’ (Pascima merudanda tadâsana)
  3. ‘Front spinal lengthening posture’ (Purva merudanda tadâsana)
  4. ‘Side spinal lengthening posture’ (Parsva merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)
  5. ‘Twisted spinal lengthening posture (Parivrtta merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)

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Breathing (Part 1): How to breathe to help your spine, internal organs and energy levels

In this blog I will be discussing the the physical and physiological effects of breathing. There are two main reasons we breathe. The main reason is the physiological reason of getting oxygen into our cells. Perhaps surprisingly to many people the best way to achieve this is to safely breathe as little as possible (hypoventilation) to stimulate the Bohr effect which says significant carbon dioxide must be present for oxygen to be able to enter the cells (see our recent blog). The other reason we breathe could be called physical reason and it includes the effects on joints, muscles, nerves, the mind, emotions, blood floor, digestion, reproduction and immunity. In this blog on breathing (Part 1) I will be focusing on the physical effects of breathing. If you breathe, or use the muscles of breathing in certain ways you can radically improve and/alter strength, flexibility, nerve function, blood flow and internal organ health. Many people inadvertently only focus on this reason for breathing and in their enthusiasm and often lack of knowledge they over-breathe (hyperventilate) and thus miss the primary purpose of breathing. In the next blog on breathing (Part 2) I will be focusing on how to achieve the physiological effects of breathing. The advanced practitioner can control their breath in such a way the both the physical and physiological benefits of breathing are achieved at the same time.

Most people should do only natural breathing (simple breath-control) in posture and during movement:

It is best for most people (until they are very experienced) to practice posture and movement separate to specific breath-control. It is difficult for most people do more than one thing at once while they each still being learnt. What tends to happen when people try to learn posture and breathing at the same time is that either the posture or the breathing is compromised. Compromising the posture lead to damaged muscles, ligaments or joints. compromising breathing could lead to over-tension, over-stress and the problems of over-breathing (hyperventilation). Natural breathing has three fundamental properties
1. inhalation is diaphragmatic (abdominal)
2. exhalation is passive
3. the amount of breathing is minimal

Only very experienced people should practice advanced breath-control exercises in complex posture and during movement:

Simon Borg-Olivier in Parsva parivrtta san calana mudra (Image © Nick Aldridge)

Figure 1: In this photo I am moving my body and in a relatively difficult posture side-lengthening, twisting, backward bending lunging posture while doing a fairly advanced breath-control exercise. It is recommended that unless you are very experienced it is best to do natural breathing while movement. (Photo courtesy Nick Aldridge)

In Figure 1 I am doing advanced spinal breathing during complex movement. I follow a path of inhalation that lasts up to 2 minutes on some breaths and a path of inhalation that last up to 2 minutes for exhalation on other breaths. As I ‘breathe into’ a part of the trunk I simultaneously expand that part, lengthen it, relax it and focus on it as I move it. When I ‘breathe out of’ part of the trunk I simultaneously expand that opposite part of the trunk, lengthen it, relax it and focus on it as I move it. This can create quite complex patterns for the mind to visualise but it also has very heating effect and does wonders to the strength, flexibility and wellbeing of the trunk, spine, internal organs and energy levels. In the simplest physical version of this exercise I twist my body to the left side while spiralling my breath around the trunk lengthening first the back f the body, then right side, then the front and then then left side, then I repeat a similar breathing starting from the opposite side in the opposite direction. Before you attempt this it is best to practice long slow breathing in a seated posture (see Part 2 of this blog to come soon), and separately practice the movements with natural breathing.

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Exhale for Pleasure, Strength and Freedom

 

Simon Borg-Olivier in Kulphasana: The Long Exhalation to Freedom (Photo Courtesy Donatella Parisini)

Simon Borg-Olivier in Kulphasana: The Long Exhalation to Freedom (Photo Courtesy Donatella Parisini)

In this short video below I discuss the seven main ways you can exhale and how by understanding and mastering these ways of exhalation you can stimulate the pleasure centres of your brain, improve core strength, save energy, reduce stress, make your spine more mobile and flexible, and massage your internal organs to improve the function of your digestive system, immune system and reproductive system.

The body can derive benefit from making passive minimal exhalations, which are seemingly effortless and help promote a calm restful state; and complete exhalations, which benefit the body by eliminating toxins from the body in the ‘stale’ air. The seven (7) main ways to exhale shown in this video and some of their applications are as follows:

 

1. Passive Abdominal Exhale
2. Passive Chest Exhale
3. Passive Postural Exhale
4. Active Postural Exhale
5. Forced Oblique Abdominal Exhale
6. Transverse Abdominis (TA) Exhale
7. Active Chest Exhale

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