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 and 2016 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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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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Moving from the Spine

The spinal column is an incredible structure that has a dual nature. It is a strong central axis that supports the whole trunk. Yet the spine is also mobile, allowing the trunk to bend forward, sideways, backward, and to rotate. In the practice of yoga asanas, we explore side bends, forward extensions, twists and backbends that can help create an optimal balance of spinal stability and mobility.

When we sit to begin asana class, or practice pranayama or meditation, we search for the balance of the head over the tailbone. A different experience arises when we look to balance the tailbone under the head. This ongoing relationship between the head and the tailbone is one way to have a clearer experience of the spine itself. We may seek to create the greatest possible distance between the head and the tailbone, or bend in any direction we choose with spinal elongation. Awareness of the head-tail relationship helps us know where the spine is in space, and how we can optimize spinal decompression and length.

In Iyengar Yoga, we move from the outer to the inner and from the gross to the subtle. To move from the spine is more subtle than to move from the trunk. Therefore, we can initially think of the spinal as a receiver rather than a doer of action. We can access the spine through the use of the arms and legs, thinking of the limbs as actors and the spine as a receiver. We can also access specific portions of the spine through other body areas, using the abdomen to move the sacrum, the waist to move the lumbar spine, the rib cage to move the thoracic spine, and the head to move the cervical spine.

The dynamic relationship between actor and receiver, or benefactor and beneficiary, is a fundamental principle for the exploration of asana as taught by Prashant Iyengar. A few examples:

• By the legs, for the spine.
• By the rib cage, for the spine.
• By the breath, for the spine.
• By the mind, for the spine.

With practice, consciousness can penetrate to the spine itself, so we can begin to experience the spine as the actor and other aspects of ourselves as the receivers or beneficiaries.

• By the spine, for the legs.
• By the spine, for the rib cage.
• By the spine, for the breath.
• By the spine, for the mind.

The possibilities for exploration are infinite.

To get some insight into this exploration join Karen February 20-21 for two special workshops sponsored by the Yoga Center of Lawrence, Kansas. Karen will teach Breathing through the Asanas on Saturday and Moving from the Spine on Sunday.


“By the spine, for the mind.” This suggestion is an interesting and powerful one. The teachings of yoga suggest that the foundation for a stable, attentive mind is a stable, elongated and upright spine. But where does the body end and the mind begin? As B.K.S. Iyengar explains in Light on Life, the divisions of our being into body, breath and mind, or into five layers of anatomy, physiology, mind, intelligence and soul, are really only conveniences – models to help us look at and understand ourselves better.

But experience is unified. Concerning these various aspects of ourselves, he writes “We should imagine them as blending from one into the other like the colors of the rainbow.” This week in your practice, explore heightened spinal awareness as a way to learn more about all aspects of the radiant rainbow of your being.

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The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a theme that never grows old. In his work on the power of myth, Joseph Campbell brought the understanding of the hero’s journey into popular consciousness. The archetypal journey toward integration and wholeness can be found in many contemporary stories, like Star Wars or in a Marvel comic, as well as in timeless sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita.

In the first stage of the hero’s life, there is isolation and a feeling of being disconnected from others and the world. In fiction this is represented by the hero being an orphan, or having had their home planet destroyed, or having been abandoned by their family. The hero is alone.

Then something occurs to spur a journey. The hero meets their mentor, whether it is Yoda, or Lord Krishna, and begins to train. The old life and priorities are left behind, and the hero begins on the road to their true destiny.

Once training is complete, the hero must go on a quest, most often in service of the greater good. In devoting herself to service, the hero must learn what her unique gifts and strengths are and hone these abilities in order to face the obstacles on the journey.  In the process of serving others, the hero finds out who he really is, and understands the meaning of his life.

While most of us don’t have light sabers or superpowers, we do have enormous capacity to develop ourselves, both for own well-being, and for the benefit of others. In a sense, each one of us is on our own hero’s journey to learn what we are uniquely suited to do in this world, to achieve personal fulfillment and integration. In yoga philosophy, finding this ideal life path is called seeking our dharma.

There are several yoga poses that contain the root word “vir.” Virabhadrasana is the Warrior, who trains body and mind in order to serve and protect others. Virasana is literally the Hero Pose. One of the pillars of yoga practice is virya, or vigor. In our yoga, we must work with courage and valor, making a heroic effort to move forward despite the impediments that we face.

In yoga practice, it can help to realize that the effort required is heroic, and that the aims of yoga are bigger than life. Like our friends on screen, in literature and in sacred stories, we will face problems, and have to search deeply within ourselves to solve them.

At some point in many of these stories, the hero is close to giving up. This might be symbolized by losing one’s tools and possessions or being alone in a dark forest or cave. But here, in the heart of darkness, the aspirant journeys inward and finds an inner power and light previously unknown.

In our inward journey of yoga, we seek the light within. We will need courage, faith, sharp memory and awakened awareness to reach the goal. But the fulfillment of the path – illuminated joy and boundless bliss – await us.










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