Dassa Oppenheimer studied with B.K.S. Iyengar in South Africa when he first began teaching westerners and when his classes were very small. She also studied with him at his institute iin Pune, India. I have been studying with Dassa for nearly a decade and her other students just as long and longer. Currently she is “not teaching the pose” so to say, because we know the poses. She is teaching refinements so that we enjoy and understand a pose more completely.
“Be sure to remember this!” she says. “Stay in your yoga body when doing EVERY pose. Each pose has the same feeling.”
All poses go back to Tadasana. We lift the sternum and move the skin up the front body, flatten and broaden the back, move the kidneys down, and exist in strong legs without pulling up the kneecaps. “The knees move up from the back,” Dassa says, “never from the front. You exhaust yourself if you pull the knees up from the front.”
To sequence into a Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) class we practice Ustrasana, being sure that the feet are in line with the knees and knees in line with the hips; and to strongly move energy up the inner thigh–between the knee and inner groin. This inner groin lift helps slide the skin on the front torso up and consequently lifts the sternum in a nice yoga body way. Then we we do the opposite movement–Ustrasana with the feet on a chair and the shoulders on the floor (or you could call it Setu Banda Sarvangasana with feet on a chair). Sometimes we practice Navasana or Ubhaya Padagusthasana, Supta Virasana, Uttana Padasana, or the standing pose Parsvottanasana, finding a “bolt” of energy at the inner tailbone.
In our shoulderstand practice, we start with a chair prop placed behind our heads and go into a supported Halasana. We place our knees/thighs on the chair. Since I am tall, I need a bolster under my quads to create a right angle in the groin. We stay in this position quite a while to release the groins, to make shoulder adjustments and to pull our energy up to the inner tailbone and flatten the back body. Then we go up one leg at a time. First the right leg. Then the left. Repeat: right leg then left. Then both legs. We never just lift up into full Sarvangasna. At this point Dassa moves the chair prop away and we continue with an intense practice and variations.
This checklist assume the yogini is not a beginner and understands this quieting, nurturing queen of a pose. It is not instruction for how to enter the pose or exit the pose but a bottom-to-top list for refining the practice.
1.YOUR BLANKET. Never stack up more than 2” of blanket. “An inch and a half is the best.” Use a firm blanket, or two firm blankets, that are neatly folded in exactly the same shape. No lumps. No angles. No misaligned overlaps or shifts. Too much height causes you to jut your chin and cranks the neck into the wrong position. When the chin is up you cannot extend the thoracic or root the base of skull straight down.
2. NECK PLACEMENT. The neck is absolutely free. No portion of the neck rests on the folded blanket. Neck retains flexion and moves deliberately out of the chest.The back of the head presses into the mat.
3.VOICE Your should be able to talk in your normal voice. If you talk and it sounds lower, higher, or stressed, adjust your position. If your face is red, you also need to make adjustment.
4. NOSE points straight up
5. COLLARBONES roll like the tubes of a window shade, up towards your chin and the floor around again.
6. ELBOWS AND SHOULDERS. There is an inside-out-rotation going on in shoulderstand. Press tips of elbows into the mat to take the weight, pin triceps on the ground, move elbows in towards center line–closer towards each other. Cracks of the armpits move forward.
7. THUMBS.When you place your hands on the back, thumbs point up towards the feet. Correct placement helps you to lift inner tailbone,.
8. FINGERS point towards spine. Use the inner arch between thumb and index finger to help raise abdominal muscles.
9. ANUS TOWARDS PERINEUM facilitates opening of the groins and lifting of tailbone.
10. EYES OF THE GROIN. Open the front of the hips. Hip flexors push forward while legs and tailbone lift up and elbows press down. BTW: Nipples are in line with center of the groin.
11. INNER HEELS. Move energy in the legs up to inner heels. Lifting inner heels facilitates important inward rotation of thighs
12. OUTER EDGES OF THE FEET roll down. (Inner edge and metatarsals push up.)
13. EYES are completely relaxed and passive. Let the pupils sink back into the skull and then tuck them behind the sternum. Face is relaxed.
14. BACK BODY Charge the body from the back. Nothing goes on in the front body . All adjustments are made from the back body.
15. FIND TADASANA