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Strike a pose & Breeeeathe: Michelle Keenan asks Asheville's top yogis to teach us their favorite poses.

Apparently asking a yoga teacher what their favorite yoga pose is is like asking this writer what her favorite color is, "What do you mean a favorite color? Just one? For a dress? A car? A wall? "What do you mean a favorite pose?" was the immediate puzzled response to this question, followed very quickly by a stock answer, "Whatever pose I'm in at the moment." Mind you, like me and colors, these tutors of flexibility and wholeness were not being difficult; it just seemed like an odd question to them.

My seemingly simple and fun assignment--to interview four area yoga instructors to find out what their favorite yoga pose is and why--turned out to be a bit of a philosophical, physical and somewhat topsyturvy adventure. Stephanie Keach, Cindy Dollar, Lillah Schwartz, and Adam Laufer kept me on my toes, and even my head, as we got to the crux of the question.

Stephanie Keach Splits in Side Shoulderstand

While contemplating her pick, Stephanie Keach, owner of the Asheville Yoga Center says, "Oh it's so hard to choose--I love it all!" She continues, "It's about the whole practice, they [the poses] are all designed to work together." A lovely, radiant and peaceful woman, Keach still saw the amusement in the question. After a bit of thought she selected Splits in Side Shoulderstand (Hanumanasana in Parsva Sarvangasana).

Why? "I'm just having a lot of fun with that pose lately," says Keach. "It's just a great variation on shoulderstand and it's very approachable for people. It's a great stretch and the inversion has wonderful benefits. It's great for women because it stimulates the thyroid. But it's great for men as well. Inversion poses nourish and nurture glands and massage the organs. They also stimulate blood flow, which is good for detoxification. This pose works the iliopsoas muscle." (The iliopsoas is the great flexor muscle of the hip joint, divisible in two parts--the iliac and great psoas.)

As Keach describes the pose, she smiles and says, "It's just a yummy pose." Keach likes this particular shoulderstand because it's user friendly; it doesn't require a prop, and because it's a creative variation, it's kind of fun. She continues, "When we are fully in any pose and are fully in the moment there's a wonderful freedom with that. That's why we [yoga teachers] all say whatever pose we're in is our favorite. It's part of the beauty and freedom of yoga."

Caution: Do not do this pose if you are pregnant, menstruating or if you have high blood pressure.

You can reach Stephanie Keach at the Asheville Yoga Center at www.youryoga.com or 828-254-0380.

Instructions for Hanumanasana in Parsva Sarvangasana Splits in Side Shoulderstand

Step 1: Lie on your back, knees bent.

Step 2: Roll your hips and legs into the air, knees bent, hands supporting your lower back.

Step 3: Shift hips a few inches to the right as your sacrum comes to rest into the palm of your right hand only. Left hand can be used as support, or later can rest on the floor.

Step 4: Open the legs into a scissors split with the right leg coming forward and left leg going back. Because the sacrum/hips are twisted, the splits will be twisted. This should feel comfortable and not unbearable.

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Cindy Dollar Revolved Half Moon Pose

"Just one?!" Cindy Dollar replied "I love them all!" These statements are clearly true when one meets this wonderfully exuberant, petite but hardly diminutive woman. Ultimately, Dollar chooses a standing pose. "I am an Iyengar instructor and a standing pose is about strength." Dollar also chooses the most difficult pose for this feature--Revolved Half Moon Pose (Parivrtta Ardba Chandrasana). Dollar agrees that the pose is challenging. "It is challenging, but it's doable. If you can't do the standing version of this pose you can work up to it. You can do a version of this' pose on the floor, work up to the wall and then work up to standing version."

Dollar continues, "It's a great multitasking pose. It stretches and lengthens the legs. The revolved, twisting action gives the organs a great massage and builds flexibility and suppleness in the spine. It's a great balance pose and that quiets the mind. You have to concentrate and focus, and let go of the clutter in your mind. There's a freedom to this pose --everything is wide open, arms outstretched, legs and spine stretched. When our mind is peaceful, it's in the present. When we are present, we are truly free."

Dollar is a remarkably positive person, and this carries into her practice as well. As we begin to bring the interview to a close she asks if she can say just a few more words to readers. "Be kind to yourself as you approach poses. Who you are on the mat is who you are off the mat. So be kind, be patient and you will be amazed at what you can do, and what you feel in each moment--but above all be kind to yourself."

Caution: Do not do this pose if you are pregnant, menstruating or have a herniated disc.

Cindy Dollar can be reached at One Center Yoga at www.onecenteryoga.com or 828-225-1904.

Revolved Half Moon Pose (Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana)

Step 1: Start by standing straight with your feet together and arms stretched down by your sides. (Mountain Pose) Then separate your feet three and a half to four feet apart and extend your arms out in line with your shoulders. Press into your heels and lift up through your chest and sides.

Step 2: Turn your left foot and leg in toward center 75 degrees and your right foot and leg outward 90 degrees to turn toward the right until your entire body faces your right leg as if you just took a giant step forward.

Step 3: Keep turning to the right and place your left hand on the floor or on a support on the inside of your right foot (Revolved Triangle Pose). Press your hips back and bring your chest toward your head to lengthen your spine. Place your right hand on your right hip.

Step 4: Keep your right inner foot pressed firmly into the floor and pull your right hip back and away from your waist. Extend through the crown of your head and bring your left side ribs toward your front body to increase the twist.

Step 5: (This is the tricky part!) Bend your right leg, bring your left hand one foot forward onto the floor (or support) and straighten your right leg. Lift your straight left leg up to balance on your right foot and left hand. When your balance is steady, lift your right arm up toward the ceiling and turn your head to look up toward your hand. You did it!

Step 6: Reverse the pose to come out of the process.

Variations on the pose:

Floor: Lie on your back with your arms stretched out to the sides away from your chest in line with your shoulders. Take your right leg up toward the ceiling and then across your body to the left. Keep that foot on the floor or on a support as you turn your chest to the right. After you do this side, come out of the pose and do the other side.

Wall: Stand with your right side toward the wall and separate your feet three and a half to four feet. Turn toward the right and place your hands on the wall. Take your left hand down to the floor or to a support. Bend your right leg, take your left hand down to the floor or to support. Bend your right leg, take your left hand down to the floor or to a support. Bend your right leg, take your left hand forward, and then straighten your right leg as you maintain the turn toward the right and use the wall to help your balance. After you do the right side, come out of the pose and do the left side.

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Lillah Schwartz Bridge Pose

Lillah Schwartz has been teaching Iyengar yoga for 27 years, 25 of which in her own studio, Lighten Up Yoga. A quietly elegant woman, one might guess Schwartz to be a ballet teacher instead of a yoga instructor.

As we sit on the floor of her studio, we talk about the different styles of yoga and of how hard it to pick just one pose. We talk about how different poses strike us differently depending on our present mood and physical condition, but that it's the practice as a whole that is most important. To her that practice never gets old. "You always continue to learn new things. You are always a student," she says.

Student or not, Schwartz comes to yoga in a very pragmatic way. "I'm very practical I want my, students to understand the physicality of yoga and of their bodies. I teach them the practical aspects of why they are doing what they are doing in the asanas (poses)." Schwartz believes that anyone can be shown poses, but in order for the student to have a body, mind and spirit connection, they must be guided in a practice that truly supports them. For her, that starts with supporting them physically. "Then the rest will just happen," says Schwartz.

With that Schwartz tells me why she selected Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) for the feature. "I don't really have a favorite pose per se, but I do have a favorite muscle--the psoas. I chose this pose because it supports the psoas muscle, and everyone can do it."

"The psoas (responsible for the rotation of the thigh and the flexing of the trunk on the pelvis) is often a neglected muscle in today's society. When we sit too much the psoas becomes shortened and dull. This affects flexibility in our hips. Bridge Pose is a great exercise to lengthen the psoas. For women it stimulates the ovaries and the uterus. It is a very helpful exercise for women in menopause; the motion helps create a healthy hormonal balance. "It also helps ameliorate some of the stiffness in the pelvic area caused by the shortening and tightening of psoas muscle. It stimulates healthy sexual function for men and women."

In addition to being a completely approachable pose, Schwartz "also calls it a "feel good pose," and "Any time we do an inversion pose, there is an endorphin release--and that always feels good." She also rattles off the other benefits of inversion: "Inversion oxygenates the brain, stimulates the health of the heart, massages the organs, and supports the thyroid and thymus functions." She continues, "So look at all the wonderful physical benefits you get with this simple pose. Those are the sorts of things I like my students to understand, even when they're just enjoying the moment."

Caution: People with neck injuries should avoid this pose unless supervised by an instructor.

Lillah Schwartz can be reached at www.lightenupyoga.com or 828-254-7756. See her in-depth article on the psoas muscle in this issue's Breathe in department.

Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Step 1. Supported on a brick. Lie on your back. Bring your feet close to your buttocks. Raise your hips and place a 6 x 4-inch brick tall and narrow under your sacrum. (Note: if you can't raise up enough for a tall brick then place the brick one notch lower.) Turn your upper arms out and under, bringing your shoulderblades closer to your spine and lifting your chest. Curl your tail in slightly in order to lengthen your psoas and protect your lower back. Breathe deeply.

Step 2. Maintaining the tilt of your tailbone, slowly walk your feet away from your buttocks. Keep your thighs parallel by extending from your outer hip to your inner knee. Stop when you observe your tailbone tilting down rather than up, or when you feel your back begin to tighten. Keep your throat soft and your breath long and wide.

Step 3. Come out of the pose. Slowly walk your feet back. Feet beneath your knees, lift your hips up and hold them there with the power of your gluteal and hamstring muscles. Count to 10. Lower your hips, and raise them again for a 10-count, then turn the brick half-way down and rest your pelvis there. Curl your tail and raise your hips again; turn the brick down to its lowest level, rest your hips. Repeat, count to 10, and remove the brick completely.

Step 4. Rest for 3-5 breaths in Supta Baddha Konasana. Place your feet together, dropping your knees out to the side like a butterfly. (Avoid drawing your knees to your chest.) Bring your knees together and move on

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Adam Laufer "Bat Pose"

Speaking of Inversion, Adam Laufer, a student of Iyengar yoga for fifteen years and a teacher of his own unique brand of fun and challenging yoga for seven years, chose "Bat Pose." "Out of all the hundreds of yoga poses, it's hard to pick my favorite, but when I think of the one that gives me the most benefit and the one that I do just about everyday, I would have to say that it is Bat Pose." To do the pose, you hang upside-down in an inversion sling.

Laufer explains, "There are many days when I am too exhausted to do anything physical, so hanging upside-down is the only thing I can do because it takes no effort, just an inversion sling attached to either a yoga wall or two eyebolts in a ceiling rafter." Laufer finds the pose a real treat, "It's very rejuvenating and offers a great return with very little effort." He says that after hanging upside-down for a few minutes he is recharged enough to do other poses, but sometimes just doing Bat Pose is all he needs.

He says that students often need a little trust to hang upside-down and that it may feel a little funny at first, "But after people get used to doing the pose, they love the traction it gives to the spine." Laufer relaxes so deeply in this pose that he has been known to fall asleep in his sling from time to time.

Check with your local studio about where to get slings; Many studios offer props and even slings, or they can order one for you. Other resources include: yogawall. com, halfmoonyogaprops.com, yogaprops.com.

Caution: Do not do this pose if you're pregnant, menstruating or if you have problems with dizziness or vertigo.

Adam Laufer can be reached for Asheville and Weaverville classes and sling advice at 828-658-0830.

As for this writer, I enjoyed all the poses, and I may even have to install a sling in my house ... oh, and my favorite color? It's red, no blue--actually at this very moment it's orange.

Instructions for "Bat Pose"

To get into Bat Pose, you will need the equipment. Adam tells his students that he will install some eyebolts in their house if they cook him dinner. Once you have your sling installed, here's what you do:

Step 1: Bring the seat of the sling under your buttocks.

Step 2: Hold the ropes to either side of you as you hoist yourself up, making sure the sling rides high up on your sacrum, but not too high. (You'll be able to tell if it feels supportive enough.)

Step 3: Swing yourself upside-down, bringing your knees out to the sides and wrap your legs around the side ropes for security.

Step 4: Stay in it for one or two minutes (or less if you are just starting). Come down carefully and give yourself a minute or two to lie down or lean forward to allow your blood to equalize.

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Author:Keenan, Michelle
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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