by Jen Malone
Yoga can be many things to many people. For some it is a way to relax, for some a grueling sweat filled workout. It can be a time for quiet reflection or a spiritual journey that takes you to all parts of the globe.
For me it has been all of these things. I took my first yoga class in 2000 at Boston Sports Club. At that time I was running my own PR agency, representing bands and not living the healthiest lifestyle. I was intimated by the weight room at the gym and so I decided to take an Ashtanga yoga class. It was one of the most intense physical workouts I had ever done, but I couldn’t wait to try it again.
About a year later I had a regular daily practice and a friend from class told me that I would probably make a good instructor and that I should think about doing a teacher training. I loved the idea of doing yoga every day for 8 hours and so I did my first Ashtanga Yoga teacher training in Burlington, VT with David Swenson. As I started to teach, my curiosity grew, as did my practice, and I traveled to Vancouver, BC to study in an Advanced Teacher Training. It was there I met Tiffany Viehmann (now an internationally respected acupuncturist and yogi herself), and we decided pretty much on a whim to go to India to study.
We booked our flights and traveled to Mysore, India to study at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute with guru Sri K Pattahbi Jois. I lived there for 2 months, studying Yoga, Ayurveda, Sanskrit and Chanting and it changed my life.
In addition to doing music PR, I continued to practice and teach in Boston and began to explore other styles of yoga, including Yin Yoga, which is a restorative, mellow practice – the exact opposite of Power Yoga. It is a slow practice where you hold poses for a longer period of time. I also started teaching Vinyasa Yoga (vinyasa means breathe with movement, so it flows from one posture to the next), but it differs from Ashtanga, in that you do not have to stick to a set series of poses and can really have fun and let your personality come out.
I would always play music in class, but not the chanting, Eastern style music – it just wasn’t me. My standbys were Sigur Ros “Agaetis Byrjun” and Air “Moon Safari.” As I started teaching more non-Ashtanga classes, I planned out what I would teach, but make playlists that would really compliment the flow, style and sequence.
In Yin Yoga, you hold postures for a lot longer than normal to get a deeper stretch and so I like to play mellow songs to help move into that reflective quiet space. Vinyasa playlists are definitely more upbeat and since the majority of my students probably won’t know Sigur Ros, I like to throw in familiar classic rock tunes like “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, “Something” by The Beatles, “Mambo Sun” by T. Rex or “Space Oddity” by Bowie. To keep things fun and interesting, I love to play indie rock covers like “Superstar” by Sonic Youth, “I’m On Fire” by Bat For Lashes, and “Your Song” by Ellie Goulding. Most recently “Lovesong” by Adele has been in rotation. Inevitably someone always asks me the artist of one of these covers after class.
After we get a nice good sweat going and get to the apex of class, whether that is backbends or inversions, the playlist starts to mellow out, to sort of signal that we are slowing down, preparing for Savasana.
Savasana means ‘corpse pose’. It is the last posture in any yoga class. It is where you just lie on your back – no work, no effort and let all the pieces of the puzzle come together. Savasana is why people leave yoga (hopefully) feeling blissed out and super mellow and relaxed. It is one of the most important poses in the practice, so the song has to be special. I still love to play Sigur Ros “Agaetis Byrun” for Savasana. I have been using it for years. It is perfect. Mellow, beautiful, gorgeous vocals and because he sings in another language, you are not distracted by the lyrics.
Like the classes, the playlists and my classes reflect me, my personality and my life. I added local Boston bands like the tracks “Shoot Yr Life” by Charlene and “Anhedonia” by 49Admiral. Former PR clients Hi Fi Drowning have had 2 songs featured – “Sweet Tooth” and “Etiquette Offerings”. They are all still in rotation.
I might hear these playlists 4-5 times a week – depending on how often I teach – so I change them up accordingly. There are many other artists and songs I would love to play, but it is just not right. Maybe it’s the instrumentation, maybe it is the lyrics or the vocals, but it has to fit and work. I music supervise my yoga classes. I try to make it seamless, like the sequence of yoga postures and playlist were made for each other.
Most people don’t realize, but the purpose of a physical yoga practice – or “asana” – is to prepare the body to sit for meditation. It is not about doing crazy, Cirque Du Soleil poses, but rather taking time to be present in your body. There is no “being good at yoga” or competition in yoga. It does not have to be in a class, or heat filled room packed with people wearing the latest lululemon designs (although the clothes are pretty killer). Yoga is all about you. It’s not about looking just like the pictures in yoga books or Yoga Journal. David Williams, one of the first practitioners and teachers of Ashtanga says, “The real yoga is what you can’t see.”
Here is a simple yoga sequence you can do anywhere, anytime, along with a playlist. Sun Salutations are the basics of any yoga practice and can be pretty intense at first, so just do one or two, and work up to five of each. Breath is the most important part of the practice, so remember to continuously breathe. If you start holding your breath, you can open yourself up for injuries. Savasana is an extremely important part of the practice, as well, so take a few minutes and just lie quietly, receiving all the benefits of your practice. If you have any injuries, please consult your doctor before engaging in any physical activity.
Jose Gonzales “Heartbeats”
First, sit quietly with your legs crossed. Sit on a pillow or a block if you have one if you have tight hips. Stack your shoulders over your ribs, ribs over your hips. Keep your chin parallel to the floor and just rest your hands gently on top of your knees with your palms face up. Notice your breath and then start to lengthen the inhales to be equal in length to the exhales.
Wye Oak “Fish”
Cat and cow poses are great to warm up the spine. From seated come to all fours, shoulders above the wrists, knees right under the hips. Inhale, round your back really pressing your palms in to the floor, dropping your head, looking at your belly button. Exhale, flex your spine dropping the belly towards the floor, looking up – maybe even getting a stretch in the neck by bringing your jaw forward. Move through these a few times. If you find a sweet spot – stay for a few.
Radiohead “All I Need”
Child’s pose is your resting pose. Anytime you need a rest in yoga, come to this pose. From all fours, just bring your bum to your heels and your forehead to the mat and totally relax and melt into the floor. You can either keep your arms out in front of you or back behind you by your feet. Whatever is most comfortable. When you are ready, slowly come up to standing. We are now going to start moving through Sun Salutations.
The xx “Intro”
Stand up straight and tall, arms by your side, gaze softly forward. Inhale your arms all the way up above your head, reaching to the sky, pressing your palms together. As you exhale, dive down, folding forward and bring your nose towards your knees, arms by your legs. Keep your knees bent if you have tight hamstrings.
Dot Allison “Colour Me”
Inhale bring your hands to your shins, right below your knees, looking forward and coming to a flat back. Exhale fold again, brining your nose to your knees. Bend both knees a lot, bringing the palms of your hands to the floor and walk your feet back behind you to a high push up. Slowly, lower your knees, then hips, then chest all the way down to the mat. Bring your hands right by your ribs and press them into the floor. Allow the chest to come forward and in an upwards motion, legs straight back behind you. Exhale, bring your knees to the floor, curl your toes under and push back to Downward Facing Dog.
DJ Shadow “Fixed Income”
Downward Dog can be an intense pose, so come to Childs Pose at any time. In Downward Dog, your body is in an “inverted V” shape. Arms are straight, neck is relaxed, gaze softly in between your knees, hips high. Knees can absolutely be bent, with heels being heavy, reaching towards the floor. Pedal out your feet, bending one knee at a time. Breathe. Look at your hands and make sure the whole palm of your hand is firmly pressing into the floor to protect the wrists. Stay here for five full breaths if you can. Again, come to Child’s Pose at any time.
After five breaths, inhale, bend your knees a lot, look forward and bring your feet to your hands. As you practice, you can get fancy and jump both feet up to your hands, but walking up is just as effective. Bring the hands to the shins again, looking forward, coming into that flat back and then exhale bring your nose towards your knees. Inhale sweep your arms up all the way above your head, bringing your palms to touch, gazing up at the thumbs, and then exhale the hands to prayer position in front of the heart. Congratulations, you just did one Sun Salutation! Try for at least two more.
Now, we are going to add in a few things for Sun Salutation B. This is where we really build up some heat in the body and don’t be surprised if you start sweating. Sun Salutation B starts off a bit different. Come to standing, keep your feet together, and bend your knees A LOT – like you are sitting in a chair and bring your arms up over your head. If your thighs start to burn you are doing it correctly. This is Chair Pose. Stay for a breath or two and then when you *really* feel it, straight your legs and dive down, bringing your nose to your knees. Move through the Sun Salutation as described above – but when you get to Downward Dog, we will add in a few more things.
From Downward Dog, take your right foot and bring it up, right in between your hands. Use your hand to help move your foot if needed. Take your left heel and press it down into the ground. Keep your right knee bent, left leg strong and straight, rise up and bring your arms up over your head to Warrior 1 pose. Exhale bring your hands back down on either side of your foot and then take that foot back so you are in the high plank/push up position and lower your chest down to the mat. Come to Up Dog, and flow to Down Dog. Whatever you do to one side, you must do to the other, so inhale, take your left foot and bring it up in between your hands, right heel presses to the floor, and lift up to Warrior 1 on the other side. Exhale as you bring that foot back to high push up, lower down and flow through Up Dog, Down Dog. Once you get to Down Dog, work up to holding there for 5 breaths, but if you need to rest, go right to Child’s Pose. Try for at least 3 Sun Salutation B.
If you have never done yoga before, you might be spent and ready for Savasana – no problem. Take it. If you have some more time, we can move through a few seated restorative poses. First, Baddha Konasana – or Butterfly Pose. This pose is great for your lower back. Have a seat, and bring the soles of your feet together. If you need to put blankets under your knees, no problem. This is a classic Yin Yoga pose, so we will be here for a few. Get comfy. Keep the feet a bit farther away from the body, so you legs are in a diamond shape. Slowly, start to fold forward, over your legs, never pushing your knees down. A rounded back is fine here. Stay for at least 1 minute (try for 3) and up to five minutes.
Air “Space Maker”
Extend your left leg straight, and moving your right foot to the inner thigh of the left leg into Half Butterfly. Fold forward over the left leg and breath and relax. Try to keep the left leg nice and straight, but if you have tight hamstrings, you can bend the knee. Stay for at least 1 minute (try for 3) and up to five minutes. Switch legs and do the other side.
Cowboy Junkies “Sweet Jane”
This Mortal Coil “Ivy And Neet”
Now, extend both legs straight out and gently fold forward in between your legs. It doesn’t matter how far down you get, what matters is that you get to a point where you feel a stretch and can still breathe. After at least 10 breaths, the hamstrings, inner thighs and groins, will relax and you will get deeper into the pose. Stay for at least 1 minute (try for 3) and up to five minutes.
Now, comes the *really* delicious part of the practice. Spinal Twists and Savasana.
God Is An Astronaut “Elysian Fields”
Lie on your back and bring your knees into your chest. Interlace your fingers and rest the palms of your hands on your knees. Don’t pull the knees into your chest, just let the weight of your arms rest on the knees and do the work. Make sure you neck is neutral and your chin is not jutting out and up. Allow the lower back to just relax and release.
The Secret Machines “Leaves Are Gone”
Bring your arms out like the letter T and keeping your knees bent and together, take them over to the right side, coming into a spinal twist. If the knees don’t get to the floor, place some blankets or pillows underneath, try to not have them dangling. This can be super intense so just really concentrate on your breath. Allow the left shoulder to be heavy and if the left arm is dangling off the floor, bend the elbow and rest the palm of the left hand on the left ribcage. Close your eyes and just breathe.
Stay here for at least a minute.
Robyn “Hyperballad (Bjork Cover)”
Inhale your knees back to center and hold in center for a minute, noticing how the right side of your body feels, compares to the left. Breathe. Relax. Keep everything very soft. And then take it to the other side.
The Album Leaf “The Light”
You should be really super mellow by now, and ready for Savasana. If you tend to get cold, put a blanket over you – especially your feet. Lie flat on your back with your legs straight, feet slightly wider than hips distance. Bring your arms out to the side, palms facing up. Relax. Try to quiet your mind. As any thoughts come in, notice them, but then let them float on, like clouds. Do not be attached to your thoughts. They really will never stop; just let them fade to the background.
Sigur Ros “Agaetis Byrjun”
When you are ready, slowly start wiggling your fingers and toes. Wrists and ankles. Slowly bring your knees into your chest and roll over onto your right side. Slowly, push yourself up to a comfortable, seated position. Keeping the eyes closed; just notice your breath and your body. Bring your hands in prayer position in front of your chest and bow forward, thanking yourself for taking the time for a yoga – practice by softly saying Namaste – “the divine light in me honors the divine light in you”.
Jen Malone is a former publicist turned yogi turned music coordinator/supervisor in LA. She teaches beginners, restorative and vinyasa yoga privately and at various Equinox locations. Her greatest accomplishment is to be able to finally play a song by Trent Reznor during yoga class with “Pieces Form the Whole” from the Social Network soundtrack. http://www.blackandwhitepr.net
Photos by Luis Blackaller & Mischivus