Welcome to Karen’s Yoga Blog!

Thanks for visiting! I am delighted to share my thoughts and discoveries about the art, science and philosophy of Iyengar Yoga. Visit this blog for ideas about practice, notes from workshops with senior Iyengar Yoga teachers, and reflections about how yoga can help and support us in the art of living. You can also check the August 2008, 2010, 2016 and 2019 archives for entries about my visits to the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Institute (RIMYI) for yoga study with the Iyengar family in Pune, India.

May your practice flourish to benefit all beings!


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Just Be Interested

Some of you have heard me speak about Mary Dunn, an amazing and beloved Iyengar Yoga teacher who trained and inspired a whole generation of teachers like me. Among many other memorable teachings, Mary used to say that the main thing about approaching a yoga practice was simply to be interested in it. To me, that means that instead of worrying about being “good” at yoga, I am free instead to be curious, open minded, engaged, and present with whatever I am doing.

In this mode, the ambition to “get it right” is replaced with attention, sensitivity, and exploration through trial and error. Paradoxically, it seems to me that improvement in our execution of the postures comes more readily when we let go of our goal orientation, and instead get deeply engaged in the process of whatever asana we are doing.

The ego is, by nature, dissatisfied with the present. The egoic mind asks questions like:

“Why isn’t this pose coming better after all my efforts?”
“Why can this other person do so much better than I can?”
“Why can’t I do it the way I used to?”
“Why can’t I go further?”

The egoic questions are endless. But they can be replaced by what I call “yogic questions.” A yogic question could start with the words

“What happens when I …?”

What happens when I press my heels down into the floor? What happens when I lift my side ribs? What happens when I do an action on a slow exhalation? A sharp exhalation? What happens when I relax my eyes? What happens when I quiet the front brain and let intuition guide me?

Yogic questions help us learn to observe  the effects of our actions, and lead us toward better understanding of the dynamic interactions between body, breath and mind. The yogic questions are also infinite, but they lead us deeper into our inquiry. They may help us view a yoga asana not as something to accomplish, but as a situation designed to invite investigation and discovery.

Each attempt at a yoga posture is a lab in which we can examine the layers of self, from the outermost pores of the skin to the innermost core of our being. By approaching an asana as a process to experience, instead of as a goal to be achieved, the ego and its ambitions may be set aside, as we become absorbed in the timeless present.

In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar writes the following in his commentary on Sutra II:5:

“As the process of thought and action have exited from the beginning of civilization, so has trial and error been used in the search for knowledge.”

Our full engagement in that process of trial and error is fueled by our genuine curiosity and interest in what we are doing. The state of presence that we then experience becomes its own reward.

If Iyengar Yoga is inspiring you, please tell a friend about Green Tara Yoga and let them know that they can get One Free Class.


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Limitation Can Spark Creativity

In January, I badly sprained my left mid-foot area. X-rays did not show a fracture, and after the first month, I had little pain, but the swelling persisted for months. Then in June, I learned that in addition to the sprain, I also have a fracture to the first metatarsal that is not the original injury, but probably occurred in the last few weeks. I have been wearing an air cast for a little over two weeks and I am to stay off the foot as much as possible.

When I learned that I would be in the boot for 6 weeks, I was immediately determined to continue my yoga practice and maintain the tone and mobility of my body. I also made an inner commitment to remain positive and cheerful, for my own sake as well as for the benefit of my husband, friends and students.

I was grateful that my doctor cleared me to swim, and my time at the pool has been joyful and uplifting to body, mind and spirit. While swimming is a fantastic activity, it does not replace asana practice, and I knew that I wanted my practice to continue with depth and with appropriate challenges. While I was confident that I would be able to continue my practice in a modified way, I was surprised to find that limitation imposed by my injury has brought fresh motivation and new learning in my yoga practice.

At first my mind went to what I could not do. No standing poses. No backbends with weight on the feet. No pressure on the top of the foot. The list of poses that I would not be able to practice seemed sadly long. But I soon shifted my focus to what I could do. Reclining poses offer lots of excellent options to keep the hips mobile, the legs toned and the abdomen strong. The chair supports many ways to do forward extensions, twists and backbends. I recognized that I was actually able to do some version of every category of asana! Even standing poses can be done on the floor. In fact, the floor versions of some standing poses can be extremely challenging!

I realized that with some careful adjustments to how I entered the poses, I could still do the four fundamental inverted poses: Adho Mukha  Vrksasana (Full Arm Balance), Pinca Mayurasana (Forearm Balance), Sirsasana (Head Balance) and Sarvangasana (Shoulder Balance). Being able to continue with my inversion practice has been a huge help, keeping my body stable and toned, and my mind optimistic and calm.

Working on the inversions led me to the realization that I could use this time of restriction as an opportunity to further investigate upper body weight bearing, especially in arm balances, a category of poses that I have been neglecting. I started by figuring out how I could do Adho Mukha  Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) and other upper body weight bearing poses in ways that put little or no weight or pressure on my feet. I then started looking into how I could enter various arm balances from the chair, since squatting in Malasana (Garland Pose) is not possible for me right now.

By focusing on inversions and arm balances, I have experienced an awakening  of my arms, shoulders and abdomen. Instead of feeling a decline in my condition, I feel stronger.

When the boot comes off, no doubt I will need to rehabilitate my foot, and that process will become a new focus, also with potential for fresh discoveries. But for now, my practice has new life as I dig into some poses I had not practiced in some time.

It has been engaging and mind opening to do the problem solving involved. Is there a way to do this pose that puts no pressure on my foot? Is there a safe and steady way to enter and exit the pose? I have certainly tried some things that did not work, but also now have a good collection of things that do work, that I can share with my students and mentees.

This experience is showing me that limitation can definitely spark creativity, if we keep the mind open to what is possible, whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Whatever circumstances we face, yoga can help us find balance and peace. I hope you will visit the Green Tara Yoga website soon for resources, inspiration, and information about our classes and workshops.


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A Deeper Aspect of Backbends

Backbends are known to cultivate stamina, courage and energy. Yet when done with attention to the back body and the breath, the mind can become quiet for a refreshing and joyful experience in the back arching postures.

In Yoga The Iyengar Way, Silva, Mira and Shyam Mehta state that  “Backbends are rejuvenating. They give energy and courage, and combat depression. They open the chest and make the spine flexible. The arms and shoulders become strong. The mind and body become alert.” B.K.S. Iyengar also includes the following effects in Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health:

  • helps to correct posture
  • increases lung capacity
  • improves blood circulation to all the organs of the body
  • tones the muscles of the back and spine
  • removes stiffness in the shoulders and back
  • removes abdominal cramps
  • strengthens abdominal and pelvic organs

It seems that the general mode in regard to backbends involves, vigor, stamina, perseverance and will power. Therefore I was interested in what Mr. Iyengar had to say about backbends in an interview that he gave in 1991. In backbends, we can learn to feel the part of the body that we cannot see – the back body. He explains how working with sensitivity and discernment in these poses can lead to the sight of the “seer” – the soul or the core of our being. Mr. Iyengar expresses this idea beautifully here:

“Backbends are not poses meant for exhibitionism. Backbends are meant to understand the back parts of our bodies. The front body can be seen with the eyes. The back body cannot be seen; it can only be felt. That’s why I say these are the most advanced postures, where the mind begins to look at the back, first on the peripheral level, then inwards, towards the core.”

He goes on to say that back arches practiced in this way, instead of being overly stimulating, can actually lead us toward dhyana, meditation.

“For a yogi, backbends are meant to invert the mind, to observe and to feel—first the back, then the consciousness and the very seer. Through the practice of backbends, by using the senses of perception to look back, and drawing the mind to the back portion of the body, one day meditation comes naturally.”

I hope you can join us on Friday, April 2 at 12:00 pm for an exploration of Creating Space in Backbends, where we will look at various ways of taking support in back bending practice.

Register now for Creating Space in Backbends

Taking support can make backbends more doable while also providing a teaching tool to create correct action and alignment. Using the support of props also allows a longer stay in the poses, providing more opportunity to penetrate the pose and bring the mind to a quiet state.

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Rolling to the Right Side

After a reclining yoga pose, students are generally instructed  to roll to the right side before coming up to a seated position. One of my students recently asked me to explain why we roll to the right. I know of three reasons for this. One is physiological, one is cultural, and one is esoteric.

The physiological reason has to do with the structure of the heart and lungs. The heart lies in the left side of the rib cage. The left lung has two lobes rather than three as on the right, so there is less breathing capacity on the left side. Rolling to right side helps to avoid compressing the cardiac center and allows the free flow of breath into the left lung. The heart remains above the other organs, making it easier for the heart to supply them with oxygenated blood.

The cultural reason has to do with certain norms in Indian society, with the right hand used for eating, greeting, and giving gifts, and the left hand reserved for personal hygiene. It is considered auspicious to enter a building with the right foot. In Indian culture, the right represents auspiciousness, good luck, virtue and uprightness.

The esoteric reason is the most interesting one to me. According to yogic subtle anatomy, the physical body is supported and sustained by a series of invisible energetic centers called cakras, and these wheels of light are connected by energetic channels called nadis. The yogic texts say that the nadis penetrate the body from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head. They are the conduits of prana, the fundamental vital life force. There are three primary nadis that correspond to the spine.

On the right side is the pingala nadi. It controls the right side of the body and the left side of the brain. The pingala nadi channels the solar energy, called surya (sun). It is warming, active and energetic. It is associated with rajas, the tendency in nature toward movement and activity. This nadi is activated by breathing through the right nostril.

On the left side is the ida nadi. It controls the left side of the body and the right side of the brain. The ida nadi channels the lunar energy, called chandra (moon). It is cooling, still and calm. It is associated with tamas, the tendency in nature toward stillness and stability. This nadi is activated by breathing through the left nostril.

By rolling to the right side of the body, we would tend to breathe through the left nostril, and thereby experience the cooling, calming effect of the ida nadi and reduce the influence of the energizing pingala nadi.

The central channel, called susumna, represents the perfect balance of the solar and lunar energies, bringing about the quality called sattva. Cultivating sattva means to practice experiencing a state which is calm, harmonious, illuminated, balanced and pure. Building up sattva is one of the main purposes of yoga practice. The central channel is associated with fire, agni, which represents divine power that purifies us and rises up like a flame.

Rolling to the right is a general practice, but there are some exceptions. During pregnancy, we have the expectant mother roll to her left side. She may also do Savasana lying on her left side after the first trimester. Lying on the left side helps to avoid compressing the inferior vena cava, a large vessel running slightly to the right of the spine, that returns blood from the lower extremities to the heart. Being on the left side also relieves the pressure of the uterus from lying on top of the liver.

I have also been in classes at the Iyengar institute in India in which we rolled to right side and rested there, returned to our backs, then rolled to the left and rested there. Yet we still returned to our backs and rolled again to the right before sitting up.

It is always good to have something that we do routinely demystified, so we understand why it is being done. Try lying on each side for a minute or two, getting comfortable in a side-lying Savasana with a blanket under your head and another blanket in between your knees. Observe any differences between your experience of lying on your right and left side.

It is a pleasure to share my thoughts about yoga practice and philosophy with you! If you would like to have Karen’s posts delivered to your email inbox, you can subscribe to Karen’s Yoga Blog. From any page on the blog site, scroll down to the bottom right corner of the screen and enter your name and email.

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