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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Kathleen Pringle's Reflections on 24 Years with BKS Iyengar.

 An Interview with the Director of Stillwater Yoga Studio, Atlanta.

Wednesday night, August 17, 2014, the day after BKS Iyengar transitioned, many of us gathered in a studio at Stillwater Yoga for a brief talk about the rituals that took place earlier that afternoon. Laurel Thomas-Laulkar, an Iyengar instructor who spent over five years in Pune, India knew about some of the particular Hindu rituals that took place. She had several beautiful photographs of the event held for a man I’d only gotten to know from my studies at the studio and his books. Yet, upon hearing how his son, Prashant had to perform some very difficult tasks to honor his father and ensure a peaceful transition, powerful emotions began to surface for me. It made me realize just how much BKS Iyengar had touched my life.  Over the years, through reading the precision in words, understanding his tireless efforts to explore in his practice, his inimitable discipline and uncommon integrity, I knew I’d finally found someone whose teachings I truly respected and wanted to learn. However, I never got the opportunity to meet him. Luckily, many of my teachers have and Stillwater owner, Kathleen Pringle has probably spent the most time with him.

Rhonda:  You’ve spent a lot of time at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India what has that been like?

Kathleen:  It’s been transformative.  It’s been an honor.  The first trip was in 1990.  India has changed a lot, but the Institute hasn’t changed – because it’s always been about the yoga and about being present.  When I’m there, I feel smarter, clearer and more present. In our daily life, there are many people who have the potential to bring us down. It is rare to be in the presence of someone who can always uplift you and uplift a room of over a hundred people. That always happens when I’m in Guruji’s and Geetaji’s presence. I am always inspired and grateful by their presence, their teachings and their insights. It was more of a mystery in the beginning --how to be and what to think about it all but now it's my spiritual home. And it’s a home filled with wonderful friends from around the world that I look forward to seeing when I am there.

Rhonda:  How many trips have you taken?

Kathleen:  I’m not sure 20 something.

Rhonda:  Do you feel you got to know BKS Iyengar?

Kathleen:  Oh, absolutely. And in the way you may get to know a river by swimming in it every day. You are immersed in his presence and he moves you and he knows who you are. Even though we have had many conversations and interactions, each time that he greets me by name I am still thrilled. He’s helped me so much.  On my second trip, I was watching the medical classes, and he pulled me out and told me to help. So, he would come by and guide me and teach me at that point.  A couple of years later, I was there for a month assisting my friend Alice Plato with her 95% scoliosis and he would always oversee the work we were doing. Things got more up and personal when I had a frozen shoulder and came to medical class.  The first thing he said was, “What are you doing here?  If you’re here, I should be in the medical class.” I said, “Guruji, I have a frozen shoulder,” and he felt it and said, “Oh bad case.” Another of the long-time teachers from India came up and said, “Why do you have a frozen shoulder?” Guruji said, “It’s not her fault. Anyone can have a frozen shoulder.” I immediately was absolved of my self-doubt and shame from worrying about how I could have created it and that I had not been able to fix it. He worked with me every day.  I did every medical class and he would always come by to put me in poses  - even though it was excruciating at times.  Even in general classes, which I went to as well, he would come by to make me do poses in a certain way.  So, he was there all the time.  Since then he has helped me with other issues.  He’s looked over my practice and given me guidance. He’s given me so much, so much.

Rhonda:  What were your interactions with him like?  What was your first interaction with him?

Kathleen:  On my first trip Guruji was out of the country for the first month and I had bonded (and am still devoted to) his daughter, Geeta. His return filled me with both excitement and trepidation. I was aware of his reputation as a fierce teacher, someone big and grand who I didn’t expect to have much interaction with.  But just being in the same room and receiving his teachings was powerful, and the dynamics of the institute also changed. In the subsequent years, I was able to see how loving, compassionate, playful and inventive he was.  And he was still fierce and very strict. If you are not getting it or doing something wrong there is like this lightening flash of anger.  But it’s like a child’s anger in the sense that it’s gone the next moment - nothing lingers, there’s no resentment. It’s just like “No, not like this!” then when you do it right, “Yes, like that.” and there’s a big smile. He is a force of nature.  An incredibly charismatic man who seemed really, really big even though in stature he wasn’t that big. I don’t know how tall he was, but he always seemed to loom large and when he walked in a room, his presence would fill the room.  When practicing in the practice hall, he would stop the general classes and teach, or he would begin teaching individuals, and you would go over to listen and try to do what he was teaching. There was a particular feeling that you just knew you were in the presence of greatness.

Rhonda:  Would you say he fostered a kind of curiosity and sense of exploration?

Kathleen:  I would say, he was thinking and inventing all the time. He’d say, “Oh, I want to show you something," and he would teach something he had just discovered and he’d want to share it. His enthusiasm and excitement about sharing something was infectious. “Oh, look at this!” he’d say, and he would be really excited and he’d want you to catch what he showed you.

Rhonda:  Would you catch everything he showed?

Kathleen:  Well, sometimes you could catch a glimpse of it. Sometimes he would adjust people and it would be so quick and so dynamic; and then they would say how did he do that?  And they’d have to catch up. You couldn’t let your own mind think, ‘I would do it like this’, but you’d have to try to remember exactly what he did and try to explain it. However, it’s like if there was a lightening flash and you were asked which way the flashes of light went.  All you have is this imprint and you have to work from that impression.  Of course, while he was working on you, you immediately knew what he wanted you to do, even if you were not sure how to do it.

Rhonda:  Did you feel he had a powerful energetic ability to shift people?  People talk about his presence filling a room and stuff, and he’s changed masses of people.  From all the work he did on himself, do you feel he had an energetic effect on people’s lives as well as from his physical teaching and books. 

Kathleen:  I know that being in his presence you were changed.  His vision was so clear.  He could see who you were and so his adjustments changed you.  He did remarkable things in medical classes.  Fixing things Western doctors couldn’t fix.  I’ve watched him a lot of times and people would change and conditions would shift under his hands. His touch was really powerful.

Rhonda:  What do you remember most about him?  Personality-wise.

Kathleen:  Like I've said, he was extremely compassionate, extremely generous, and very playful…but he didn’t put up with fools.  He was quick to anger when it was to clarify something when the thinking was wrong or the actions were wrong. He would get angry if you weren’t paying attention it was like wake up I’m sharing all these wonderful things! Be present! Open your mind! There was this mixture, for me, it was about his compassion ---just how much compassion and love there was in his teaching.

Rhonda:  Did you ever see him in a dinner situation or casual situations? 

Kathleen:  He would be sitting outside and you would greet him.  Exchange words. He always wanted to interact even when he was housebound at the end.  He was always smiling and wanting to engage with people.  He was just so present.  It wasn’t like he was one person in the studio and someone else outside– he was who he was.  He was just authentic all the time.

Rhonda:  Have you heard any reactions over his passing from your peers?

Kathleen:  There are lots of reactions.  Everyone has his or her own stories.  It’s a great loss.  Hundreds of people have expressed different reactions.

Rhonda:  How do you think the school will be run?

Kathleen:  That is up to Prashant and Geetaji if there are any changes. Guruji was their father, but he was their Guru as well. 

Rhonda:  In your opinion, what is the future of Iyengar Yoga?

Kathleen:  It should continue to grow and expand. Just because he has transitioned, I don’t think it’s going to stop what people share or practice. 

Rhonda:  As far as how BKS would always come up with inventive, new things, and different ways of looking at poses, do you think that part of the practice will keep evolving through his children and grandchildren?

Kathleen:  I think it will always evolve because that’s part of the practice of trying and exploring and figuring out what is happening.  It’s part of the practice to question and observe. It’s part of the teaching as well.

Rhonda:  What would you like for the Iyengar Community here?

Kathleen:  Well, there’s a National and International community -- I think just carry on his work and honor his teachings.  I think that will happen.

Rhonda:  When you heard of his passing what was your reaction?

Kathleen:  Well, I knew he was sick and I knew when he went into the hospital because I was keeping up with his situation through friends. So, based on what I was hearing, it seemed pretty evident that these were his final days and he was getting ready to leave his body. I knew that was the most logical thing.  When I got the news that he died, it was expected in a way.  And yet, while I know he is mortal, I also know he is immortal.  I don’t know how I will feel when I go back to India, and he’s not there, but right now it feels like he is here. He’s still here in the sense that he’s in transition. But I think he will always be here in terms of his essence and his presence.  He’s become bigger in the sense that he’s not limited to a body at this point. The teachings that he’s given us will continue on through his teachers.  I hope to do my part in continuing on with what I have learned from him, Geetaji and all the other teachers who have studied with him. There will be an essence of him that I’m sure will be an inspiration for a long time to come.

A special  commemoration of the life of Guruji will be held on the thirteenth  day after the last rites.  This commemoration will be held on September 2nd, 2014 at Stillwater Yoga Studio in Midtown at 7:30 pm. Chai and some light fare will be offered for this celebration. Please email if you’d like to attend.

For more of my interview with Kathleen Pringle continue reading below:

Rhonda:  How long have you been an Iyengar Practitioner?  

Kathleen: I started with a book when I was living in Hong Kong, but I didn’t connect with it. It seemed to be just a lot of stretches.  When I moved to Los Angeles in 1979, someone suggested I try yoga and it tuned out there was an introduction to yoga course that same weekend at the Center for Yoga. I went and just fell in love with it. The teaching was primarily Iyengar yoga at that time and I have been studying it ever since.

Rhonda:  What do you feel attracted you most to the practice?

Kathleen:  First, it felt like I was home. That I had found something that completely nourished me and that held the potential to answer the questions that had always intrigued me.

Rhonda:  How long have you been an instructor?

Kathleen:  I started teaching three years after I started at the Center of Yoga and then I also taught at the Iyengar Institute in Los Angeles when it opened.

Rhonda:  There are a lot of certification levels in the Iyengar Tradition talk about those levels and the level you’re at.

Kathleen:  The levels start with the Introductory Level. After you pass the Introductory levels I&II you become a Certified Iyengar Instructor, at that point, you have all the basics to need to teach people the introductory poses and to safely teach them Sālamba Śirsasana, headstand and Sālamba Sarvāngāsana, shoulder stand, two of the most important poses.  The poses in the Introductory Levels give you everything you need for a full experience of yoga.  You now have the tools to show others the way, and have an understanding of how to progress into the more complicated poses. Next are the Intermediate Levels. There are three of these. The āsanas become more complicated in each of the three levels and you’re expected to have a greater understanding of the philosophical aspects of yoga, and to begin to help people with physical issues while in class. You should now have a good understanding of how the poses relate to each other and how learning one action in a simpler pose now gives you the key to understanding other asanas. You begin to have a deeper understanding of how the poses are integrated within them and have the ability to communicate that.  After that there are three levels of Senior Level, which asks more of you. In the United States, we have a few people who have been given the Advanced level by Guruji [BKS Iyengar].  I am Senior Level 1 teacher.

Rhonda:  And you’re the only Senior Level in the Southeast?

Kathleen:  Yes, until you get up to John Schumacher, who is an Advanced Level Instructor in Washington, D.C.; and then there are teachers in New York, Michigan and Minneapolis, who are also Advanced Level teachers.

Rhonda:  But in the state of Georgia and the Southeast you are the most senior instructor, correct?

Kathleen:  Yes, in the State of Georgia and the Southeast.

Rhonda:  You’ve been on the board and an assessor for certification. Tell me a little about that.

Kathleen: First, I was asked to be on the board by the then current board when a vacancy came up. I accepted and I served for two years. Then, the general Iyengar communities elected me back to the board and I served another for four more years. Later, the assessors themselves elected me to be in charge of certification for our organization.  I did that for four years.  I’ve been an assessor for quite a long time.  The first group started with the early Advanced Level teachers. As the number of people wanting to be certified increased we needed more assessors. Guruji was given a list of people who met certain standards in terms of trips to India and certification level and he chose the people he wanted to be assessors and I was lucky enough to be one of the people he chose.

Rhonda:  How many students have you seen go thru the system to become Certified Iyengar Instructors?

Kathleen:  I’m not sure.  As of this year, I will have done 30 assessments.  Each assessment usually has twelve people and some of those people I have seen more than once seeking higher levels of certification – hundreds certainly.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Framing my Iyengar Teacher Training in Nashville with a Few Works of Art

Never having been to Nashville, I was delighted to find the warm welcome of the Iyengar Community at 12 South Yoga and Yoga Center for Nashville.  Practitioner, Sam Cooper and his wife Lily were kind enough to host me along with Alex Cleveland, owner of Yoga At Crescent Hill and Linda Smith, owner of Orbis Yoga both based in Louisville, Kentucky.

My weekend began with a Saturday morning class with Paige Seals, a certified Iyengar instructor who I'd been through a few trainings with.  She was teaching for 12 South Yoga owner, Aretha McKinny Blevins who was away at the time. It was wonderful to have a class with someone I knew and have an opportunity to experience how her teaching abilities have developed.  The room was full of teachers in training and other certified instructors and Paige handled us all with aplomb. Respectfully giving credit to her teacher peers and mentors, she took me to a new place of Sthiti (steadiness) with a very visceral "suck it up" direction.

An Indian lunch followed the class at a local restaurant with a crew of practitioners and certified teachers. Everyone was engaging and welcomed Alex, Linda, and I as if we were part of their community. Sam indulged the tourist in me by going to an art gallery showing the work of Atlanta artist, Stacie Uhinck Rose and then to couple of historical Honky Tonks:  Tootsies and Roberts.

Sunday morning was devoted to teacher training.  I began the day with a class at 12 South Yoga with Gary Jaeger, an Intermediate Junior II Level instructor.  With his Clark Kent glasses and apparent Super Man skills it would be no surprise if he had the Vibhuti (power)  to leap tall buildings in a single bound. As a Ph.D. who teaches Philosophy and Writing at Vanderbilt University, he seems very apt at presenting complex ideas in a way we can all understand. He also uses the sculpted lines of his body for clear demonstrations that are as engaging as piece of art.  

Gary assisted Nashville's Belle of Yoga, Jan Campbell at Yoga Center of Nashville for our teacher training.  Jan is a Nashville Iyengar icon born in 1933 though of course looks like she was born much, much later.  She is a lovely woman even when frustrated. She navigated us through our peer teaching sequence with a kind of grace and style that took me back to Patanjalis three gifts:  The art of Yoga,  The refinement of speech and grammar, and Ayurvedic medicine to cleanse the impurities of our body.  

Her body like Gary's seems to frame the art of who she has become: A refined vessel striving to be free of impurities. Jan articulated the importance of our choice of words and the tense in which we instruct.  Why say something as unrefined as "grab"?  Use the active tense.  Demonstrate in first person and instruct in second person, so you command your audience and are able to teach them more effectively.   

Gary added a vivid way of describing the initial demonstration of the pose.  He said you have to set up the "skelton of the pose" for the student.  As teachers and experienced practitioners know, we don't want to move forward until we've established a steady base.  Therefore only when a student has the basic framework of the pose can we as teachers begin to build on it. 

Though I look forward to more, I only got a snippet of Gary's knowledge of Yoga Philosophy and the Sutras with his discussion on the meaning and purpose of Samyama:  the synthesis of Dharna (single-pointed focus), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (absorption). He articulated this to be when the known, the knower, and the instrument of knowing become one. 

As for my peer teaching, I did a "smidgen" better than I did in my last training. I felt I got a better handle on an old and tricky negative Samskara (mental imprint). My goal when I went to Nashville was not only to learn from other teachers, but also to test my levels of what certified Iyengar teacher, Rachel Mathenia recounted in her peer teaching:  BKS Iyengar's "yoga vitamins" faith (sraddha), vigor (virya), memory (smrti), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna) based on Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1:20. 

Challenging myself in a different state, at different studios, with different students, and around different judges helped me know how well I am overcoming my afflictions. Of course, I need to keep taking my yoga vitamins. I don't have nerves of steel yet,  but I know one day with concentrated abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (detachment) I will get them.

I want to thank Sam & Lily for being such wonderful hosts, and Paige for welcoming me to her class, as well as all of the special people who were part of my Nashville adventure. I would also like to give a big Thank You to Jan and Gary for their insights and inspirations.

I will leave you and this picture I've painted in my peanut gallery with a piece of advice to teachers in training from Gary Jaeger: "Iyengar Assessment is not about seeing how well you will teach in the best of circumstances, it's about how well you will teach in the worst of circumstances."


Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Secret Garden At Stillwater Yoga Atlanta

There is a secret garden at Stillwater Yoga.
 When aspiring teachers enter, they heal, they grow, they blossom.  

In the garden the land of certification is aerated and fertilized.

In Iyengar Yoga, it takes several years of teacher training to be ready to go up for the first level of certification; and many, many years to become certified in the intermediate and advanced levels of The Method. To become a Certified Introductory Level 1 Iyengar Instructor you must pass a specific Certification Assessment. To pass, you must show your ability to demonstrate and teach the poses on your syllabus in The Method of teaching that B.K.S. Iyengar continues to dedicate his life to perfecting. In addition, you are tested at your level on your understanding of the art, science, and philosophy of the Astanga path from which The Method is based.

This year, Kathleen Pringle, owner of Stillwater Yoga in Atlanta held the Iyengar Yoga Association Southeast (IYASE) sponsored Introductory Level summer training.  She began by carefully going over all of our certification questions. Going up for assessment the first time is stressful and anxiety-ridden for most of us. Granted, it could be said that aspiring Iyengar teachers are perhaps a little overly involved in svadyaya (self study) and still working on the balance of that with abhyasa (effort) and vairagya (letting go) that more experienced teachers already have. 

While we are all sincere and passionate about wanting to share this incredible Method of teaching, aspiring Iyengar instructors naturally tend to be more concerned about whether we are "getting it right". The amount of knowledge required to teach in the Iyengar Method is extensive. While it's important we have an accurate understanding of The Method on our syllabus, we have to learn to see the students who are right in front of us. Teacher trainings help us develop our skills and the ability to see the needs of our students through peer training. We learn to apply what we know to help students work safely while developing the poses to the best of their abilities. The more we train, the more we seed a better balance of svadyaya (self study), abhyasa (effort), and vairagya (detachment/letting go).

Nashville student teacher, Sam Cooper commented that, “I am learning that for those of us studying to become Iyengar teachers, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1.12 Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah applies as much to our teacher training as it does to our practice of asana. ‘Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.’  If I ignore the counsel of this Sutra when I undertake peer teaching, I find out quickly that I am either ill-prepared or a nervous wreck, or both!”

Teacher Trainings are packed with good information, but learning anything takes time to digest and integrate. We all assimilate information a little differently, so it's important to check and re-check that you are integrating the information correctly. Kathleen talked about how we may know something intellectually, but applying what we know takes time, which is why I have found my teacher trainings with Kathleen, my class observations, and assisting in classes with other experienced teachers like Kquvien DeWeese invaluable to my development as a teacher.

Aspiring Iyengar Teacher, Dr. Metka Zupancic commented on her experience in the June training, "The new awareness I gained from this teacher training, is the accent on "how" we teach a pose. When we give our "three points" in our initial demonstration, we need to indicate the "process" in which students may complete the actions. I am much more aware of that process now.  For example:  rotate the triceps in to open the chest and shoulders."

There were many questions answered concerning assessment; however, Kathleen instilled a very salient point to remember: the idea that "how we teach in assessment should be no different than how we teach in the studio." Assessment is merely a more condensed version of a normal class. By keeping our dharana (focus or concentration) on the students in front of us, we take the focus off (read disempower) our fears and anxieties.  

The seed that is planted in Iyengar Training is always organic.

Iyengar Teacher Training starts with an heirloom seed. A seed passed on from generation to generation, rich with nutrients. It takes root and sprouts quickly in ways we never expect. While the event brought students from Alabama, Charlotte, Nashville and as far as South Bend, Indiana --by the end of it, we knew we were all growing from the root of the same tree. Student teacher, Tammy Seigal from Charlotte, N.C. commented on the weekend saying, "Teacher Training with Kathleen offered the key components and practical aspects of the assessment process with compassion and wisdom. The Stillwater yogis welcomed the participants and created a sense of community during our weekend together." 

The soil has to be tilled to unearth what we need to learn.

Over the course of her 30 years as a Certified Iyengar Instructor, Kathleen has led many teacher trainings for beginner and more advanced teachers. She understands how to cultivate the space for learning. This summer, she shared her past experiences as a new teacher with humor and candor --- adding the advise, "Get them hooked before you stress them out," all to create a light, safe place for the tendrils of our authentic teaching skills to show themselves.

Good light is essential for our skills to ripen.

When we feel safe to open up and reveal ourselves flaws and all, even laugh a little about it -- when we are able to put our ego aside and honestly admit where we are confused without fear of judgement; something amazing happens. The sprouts of our satya (truthfulness) are met with the light of Kathleen's extraordinary patience and insight. She is able to help us work on our weaknesses. With the powers of our joint svadyaya (self study) and our ever evolving abhyasa (effort) and vairagya (detachment), we all grow.

Like plants, students tend to follow the energy of the sun.

Kathleen's classes and trainings are always filled with wonderful scientific or psychological insight and vivid imagery. One of my favorite examples of visual imagery was from one of her pranayama classes.  In order to encourage us to focus on a slower, softer, smoother puraka (inhalation), she had us imagine we were lingering over the sweet scent of a flower.  I found with that image I was able to avoid any "forced breathing" and truly enjoy a slower, deeper, inhalation effortlessly.  It was such a simple image, and yet so effective.

In training, she discussed the importance of creating images for our students. Whether those images are through our physical demonstrations or through creative imagery, they are very powerful.  Seeing an image either in our mind's eye or on the teacher in front of us, resonates in our memory faster than hearing directives. Therefore, what we show and how we show it is an integral part of our student's learning.  Whatever we "do" they will most likely mimic our actions. Scientists have been gaining tremendous insight into the brain by exploring the Mirror Neurons (click here to learn more) that create this phenomenon.  The most recognizable example of this is when we see someone yawn.  What happens?  We automatically yawn too!

Where we place ourselves in the room for particular poses is integral to the student's performance of the pose for a similar reason. If we have them face sideways to us to do a pose and we don't move to face them, they will inevitably turn their head to look back at us, and not the direction we want them to face. Therefore, moving and directing from the place that supports the directional flow of the pose you are teaching is not only important, it's usually vital for the development of the pose.  For example: in a Parvrtta Sthiti or lateral twisting pose, we want to encourage the chest to stay open and the flow of the trunk of the body to develop in a certain direction, so we move in order for the students' to be able to see us and easily maintain the directional flow of that particular pose.

The right balance of elements is what makes a yoga practice blossom.

Master teachers like master gardeners know that applying the right balance of elements (earth, air, water, and fire) is integral to your yield. Through teacher trainings, support of new teachers, observing classes, and assisting classes with more experienced teachers is the only way to cultivate the wisdom and discrimination we need to discover that perfect balance.  It's the only way to truly understand all the essential elements that are needed. In training, we reviewed many of the elements: correct sequencing, clear demonstration, visual cues, tone of voice, crowd control, room set up, energy levels, links, insights, pacing; as well as the ability to observe in 3D to keep your students safe and able to develop their poses with the correct supports, concentrations, and directional flows.

It is the most precious gift we can give our students, which is why I am grateful to have access to Stillwater Yoga and the secret garden of teacher training. It is part of the secret garden that BKS Iyengar and his family continue to tend to with such love and devotion, so we can all heal, grow, and share the beauty of everything that blooms from it. 

A big thank you to Kathleen Pringle for bringing that ideal balance of essential elements together with her incredible gardening skills to give us a magnificent bouquet of knowledge to take home. Another thank you goes to Nancy Mau for once again letting us pack into her class and learn from her clear and succinct style of teaching. I'd also like to thank the teachers in training who were all so willing to put themselves out there so we could all learn. A special thanks to Layla Newman (my training buddy who is not pictured in the photo above because she was taking it) for hosting an outdoor gathering in her beautiful garden and creating a lovely way for the teachers in training to get to know each other.


For more information on Iyengar Yoga Association of the Southeast please visit
To learn more about Kathleen Pringle and other Iyengar Certified instructors visit
The title for my piece is based on a novel published in its entirety in 1911, called The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  It is about a young girl discovering the healing power of a hidden garden. 

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Discovering an Opening at Stillwater With Nancy Mau

Nancy Mau held her annual "Hip Opening" workshop at Stillwater last weekend. A certified Intermediate Junior II Iyengar teacher, Nancy brings nearly 20 years experience to her classes.  What was most noticeable to me that Saturday afternoon was how many men showed up for the workshop.  One dedicated practitioner, Ben Hall candidly explains:
"I knew the workshop was something that I should do because it would be "good for me." I was honestly dreading it. For me I thought it was going to be like a trip to the dentist. It was certainly a challenge, but I never felt compromised in any pose or by the process of working toward a pose. I was most amazed that the two and half hours passed so quickly, nothing at all like the dentist."
Many men may know they have tight hips, but witnessing how many chose to address that fact and work to do something about it was pretty cool. Long-time yoga practitioner, Lee Barrineau explains:
"Over the past 10 years, (about every other year), I take Nancy Mau’s “hip opener” workshop. For me, it’s been something of a litmus test. What pose is now accessible to me? Which one is still a devil? (hint: rhymes with virasana). Where am I seeing improvement? But more importantly to me, how is my awareness of the movements and actions of the body changing?" 
Nancy is very skilled at linking and layering poses to prepare the body for more challenging asana. She began the workshop with a basic folded leg pose, Svastikasana to immediately bring awareness to our hips.  She gave us feedback about the  differences between our left and right hip with a simple shift of which leg was in front in the pose.

The hip bones are basically made up of the pelvic bone with hip sockets, the left and right head of the femur, femur neck, and the greater trochanter. The greater trochanter is the knob-like projection at the top of the femur or thigh bone. The word trochanter came from the Greek words trechein "to run" and torches "wheel". The word is associated to this area because it is an attachment site for muscles that produce the rotary movement of the thigh bone: the gluteus medius and minimus muscles, the piriform muscle, the internal and external obturator muscles, and the gemelli muscles.

When we notice that one side of our hip doesn't behave like the other, it could be we are experiencing any number of slight variations in the shape and orientation of the hip socket and the thigh bone. No two bones are alike. The hip socket placement, the angle that the femur head inserts into the hip socket, as well as the femur neck angle all factor into how open our hips are. There can also be tightness of the tendons, ligaments and muscles surrounding the area. The tightness may be the result of structural variations as noted above, posture, repetitive actions like running or inaction like sitting as Lee explains:
 "I grew up a typical male in the south. Sports consisted of baseball, football, tennis, racquet ball and basketball. What do these have in common besides the fact that they are all played with some type of ball? Running. Lots and lots of running. By the time I was 40, I had tight quads, tight hips and 3 knee surgeries. As an adult, I spend the majority of my day sitting. Further shortening the hip flexors at the front of the hip (psoas, rectus femoris, sartorius) and tightening the hip rotators."
The hip muscles provide a range of motion that includes: medial and lateral rotation (think turned in and turned out feet), flexion and extension (think up and down lifts of leg to the front), abduction and adduction (think leg lifts to the side) as well as circumduction (think circular motion). The iliopsoas (composed of two muscles the iliacus and the psoas), satorius, rectus femurs, tensor fasciae latae muscles along with the assistance of the pectinius aid in our mobility in this area. 

The orientation of the pelvis also plays a role in the mobility of our hips. The iliopsoas the deep muscles in the far back of the pelvis made up of the iliacus and the psoas are active in our ability to tilt the pelvis. Shifts in the pelvis affect our posture. For example: an anterior tilt, where the butt sticks out or a posterior tilt, where the buttocks over tucks both cause vertebral compensations that affect how well the skeletal system can do its job to support us; and how well the muscular system, which rests directly on the skeletal system, can do its job in optimizing our range of motion.

Any skeletal misalignment causes muscular issues.  When Nancy had us standing in Tadasana, mountain pose, we learned to work to maintain ideal alignment of the pelvis in order to bring about more structural support from the skeletal system. Thus, gaining a subsequent release of key muscles that provide better hip opening.  Needless to say, this isn't immediate, but release happens as Lee explains:
"For me, hip openers are a slow journey. As the legendary cellist Pablo Casals once said when asked why he continued to practice at the age of 90, he replied, “Because I think I’m beginning to make progress.”
In yoga, we learn about our own body's idiosyncrasies. With that knowledge, we can be more discriminating about how to practice in order to create more freedom of movement. Yoga is about creating space in the body. In the Iyengar Method, space is created in layers. Once we align the skeletal system, there is space created in the muscular system - a kind of release of tension. Over time, a better balance between our ability to extend and contract our muscles takes place.  We gain strength and flexibility as yoga practitioner and runner, Paul Ott experienced:
"I'm a runner and have tight hamstrings and hips.  Yoga helps me loosen and open these areas but I don’t practice as often as I should.  I did this workshop last year and it really helped me, so I decided to do it again this year.  When I run I feel like my stride is off or my hips aren’t moving evenly and sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but after this last workshop I had the best run I’ve had in a long time.  My stride was so smooth and it felt so easy with no pain."
As I mentioned earlier, Nancy set a foundational alignment with the standing pose, Tadasana.  The actions of this pose brought awareness to our individual postural habits.  By aligning our stance properly in this basic pose, Nancy created a safer place and a more willing place to increase our range of motion in other standing poses.

For supine poses like Supta Padangustasana, a supine foot (pada) to big toe (angst), we began with the foundation pose of Supta Tadasana, an action similar to the standing pose, but on the floor. This aligned our body and readied us to practice the various stages of Supta Padangustasana, which are designed to directly target the hip area. Turn to pages 244-246 in Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar, and you can see Iyengar demonstrate the various stages of this pose with superior range of motion. Note:  Iyengar is a man who proves strong and open hips can come with dedicated practice, abhyasa.

Of course, we were all amused at Nancy's (joking) insistence that we just release our shin to our chest in a more advanced stage of Supta Padangustasana, as Iyengar makes look so easy on page 245 plate 286. (Yes, I'm trying to encourage those who don't have the book to get it. It's pretty inspiring.)

Over the two-hour workshop, Nancy sequentially and synergistically moved us through a series of targeted asana and many students were surprised to find that when we got to Padmasana, better known as lotus (LOY Page 131 Plate 104/105), our body was more ready and willing to be open to the challenge of this advanced pose.

Needless to say, hip issues are genderless, but with a solid yoga practice we can all learn to work with what we have and gain more freedom. At the very least, we can avoid any pains to come as Patanjali teaches in Yoga Sutra 2:16 Heyam Dukham Anagatam.

Thank you Nancy for a great workshop.


For more information on Iyengar Yoga visit For information on Stillwater Yoga visit 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Transformation At The Edge Of Chaos: The Yoga Of Criticality.

In my last blog on the Manouso Manos workshop in Atlanta, I mentioned a story Manouso told about the three-hour headstand.  To recap: a student/journalist was determined to find out what a yogi thought about during a three-hour headstand. What the student discovers is that all you can think about in a three-hour headstand is how to stay in the pose. Being at "the knife's edge of awareness"  is something Iyengar students hear often in class. What does that mean exactly? In my limited experience, it means staying present and constantly adapting, moment by moment as you teeter between chaos and calm.

It is where with practice (abyhasa) which Iyengar calls a centrifucal force and renunciation or detachment (vairagya), which he calls a centripetal force you can avoid obstacles sited in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that could cause you to spiral out of control in any given instant. Your entire being is eager to embrace these two polarities that promise the "effortless effort" (Sutra 11:47) and "the end of duality" (Sutra 11:48), because you find out very quickly that attaching to just one of these obstacles could cause you to fall out of the pose. 

When attempting to sustain a difficult asana like Salamba Sirsasana (headstand), the companion obstacles to the nine main obstacles (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1:31), are usually quite prominent.  These are as follows:

duhkha:  mental or physical pain
daurmanasya: frustration, anguish, depression, sadness, despair, dejection, 
angam-ejayatva: unsteadiness, shakiness,  movement, tremor of the limbs or body 
shvasa:  irregular inhalation 
prashvasah: irregular exhalation
vikshepa:  distractions 

The nine main obstacles (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1:30) can also come into play: vyadhi: dis-ease (illness, sickness), styana: mental laziness, inefficiency, idleness, procrastination, dullness, samshaya: doubt, indecision., pramada: negligence, care-less-ness, alasya: languor, laziness, sloth, avirati: sensuality, non-abstention, craving, bhranti-darshana: false views or perception, confusion of philosophies (bhranti: false; darshana:  views, perception), alabdha-bhumikatva: failing to attain stages of practice (alabdha: not obtaining; bhumikatva: stage, state, firm ground) anavasthitatva: instability, slipping down, inability to maintain and chitta-vikshepa: distractions of the mind (chitta/ mind field; vikshepa/distractions, diversions).  

"It is axiomatic that the shape of the self (svarūpa) is identical to the shape of the body," Iyengar says in Astadala Yogamala, Volume 2When the dualities have been absorbed, reconciled, and resolved, "the shape of the asana is meditative.  Consequently the shape of the self cannot be otherwise."

In "The borders of order: Do all living things exist at the edge of chaos?" in the April 26-May 2, 2014 issue of New Scientist, reporter, Philip Ball explains: "There is increasing evidence that many systems we observe in living things are close to what's called a critical point - they sit on a knife-edge, precariously poised between order and disorder.  Odd as it may sound, this strategy could confer a variety of benefits, in particular the flexibility to deal with a complex and unpredictable environment."   

Funny thing is the Science of Yoga has been talking about this since its inception some 5,000 years ago. In Astadala Yogamala, Volume 2, BKS Iyengar gives a lesson in the confluence of Śarīra Śakti (body), Pranā Śakti (energy) and Prajñā Śakti (awareness).  The word Śakti means powers. The eight-limbs of yoga bring the three powers in alignment with the Ātma Śakti (loosely: Universal Self, Exhalted or Supreme Self) to reach "enlightenment" (Samadhi) -- (transformation, tranquility, evolution, freedom, et al.). In one paragraph he states, "The tussle begins..." hinting at an ever-present point of potential chaos where there is an imbalance in one or more of the three powers. If for example, the voltage of energy gets too high, we are forced to address any surrounding weakness, whether that be in our body or our awareness in order to avoid harm. 

In the New Scientist article, Ball sites how there have been clues in neuroscience that neurons in the brain sit near a critical point.  "On one side, they are stable and ready to respond to stimuli.  On the other, they fire in an uncontrolled cascade, triggering a seizure." However, he says scientists are appealing to the critical phase transition of iron as the oldest and most known example of this newer concept of "self-organized criticality". He describes how at a certain temperature the magnetic poles of the atoms are aligned; and then when heated to a certain degree, chaos ensues which is sufficient to "scramble the ordering".  
"Magnetic alignment below the phase transition occurs because each atom interacts with its neighbors, allowing them to come to a kind of collective decision about their orientation."
This "collective decision"  reminds me of Iyengar's words in Light On The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali  under his commentary on Sutra 11:36 Satyapratishthayam Kriyaphalasrayatvam about how when we are firmly established in truth, when every cell in our body agrees with that truth, our words become so potent whatever we say comes to realization.
"It is not our mind, but the inner voice of our cells which has the power to implement our intentions." 
Aligning those trillions of cells to have a single voice is what the eight limbs of yoga are sequentially designed to give us. Critical moments of utter fear in asana practice throwing our legs up in Urdhva Mukha Vrksasana (handstand) or utter exhaustion after our 10th Urdhva Dhanurasana (backbend) put us in a state of criticality that force an alignment of our body, mind, energy, with our supreme self --creating a "collective decision" to  transform.  The new "powers" we attain as a result are sustainable not only on the mat but in our daily lives as well.  

I don't claim any great depth of understanding in neuroscience, physics, or biology, or yoga for that matter. I just enjoy learning about them. I like to connect dots, so when Ball invites in his words the profound question: "Is the presence of criticality in all these systems just a coincidence, or a sign of a unifying physical law for all life?" I can't help but wonder if the ancient science of yoga could offer some fresh insights into that answer.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Once Upon A Time In Pune & Other Stories By Manouso Manos in Atlanta

Goldie Locks & The Three Bears
The Power Seekers
Springtime In Atlanta
Hip Stories
Palm Sunday
Thoughts During a Three-Hour Headstand
Third Floor Observations  
The Difference Between Medicine and Poison
The Big Hinge
The 29-Minute Setubandha
Who Touched My Robe?
How A Mother Taught Her Son To Blow His Nose
Stairway To The Top of The Empire State Building
The Paris Headstand 
The 20-Minute Hippy
The Mirror Meditation

Manouso shared his wit and his wisdom with us during another Atlanta workshop hosted by Stillwater Yoga. He weaved stories into almost every lesson, which made what he taught memorable and engaging. Just for fun those of you who were able to make the Atlanta workshop take a minute to go through my short sample of titles above and see if they trigger your smriti (memory) of the story behind them and relate it to what was being taught.

It is mind-boggling to me how much information Manouso is able to convey in just three short days. I feel a lot of it has to do with this uncanny ability to seamlessly link and connect us to the material through these entertaining stories. Did I retain all of them?  Absolutely not. However, I do believe, my body got more than I think it did.

Manouso alluded to the possibility of the body and the "mind stuff" collaborating more than we have been led to believe. Directives don't always just come from the brain telling the body to do something - the body works on the brain as well. I'm the type of learner who learns by doing (whether that means what I'd call "marking out" the directions with my body or hitting keys on a keyboard with my fingers to figure out what I thought I heard.) Therefore, the body having an affect on the mind stuff makes sense to me.

I can't figure it out in my brain all the time. Like Manouso, if ADD (or for me ADHD) was a big thing when I was a kid, I would have been diagnosed with it for sure. Luckily, my mom put me in ballet class at the age of 4 or 5 and I stayed with it pretty much daily until I was 23. When I left it my life went way off balance for a couple of years until I found yoga. The physical aspect helps me unclutter my brain. When I think back on the workshop, or get into the asanas we worked on with Manouso, I hear his voice correcting our attempts, I see his demonstrations, I hear his stories and I'm able to get myself into a place of learning again.

I may not relate all the stories correctly. So, I welcome corrections.  However, for kicks let's give this a try:  Goldie Locks & The Three Bears as I remember was about getting to a place where we feel "just right".  This was after our beginning svastikasana (this one [of three other versions] was about stretching our inner heels away from each other and lining feet under knees, keeping front shin parallel to front wall) and our chanting, where he said something like, 'whatever this chant means to you let it help you find your inner being'.

He connected Goldie Locks & The Three Bears to the 'Seeking Power' story. Manouso related the first story to our asana practice and transitioned, if memory serves to the second story with the idea that we may say we come to yoga for other reasons, but we are really 'Seeking Power'.  If you think about it he's exactly right.  We want power over our mind, our body, our emotions, or over our bosses, enemies, our competitors, the list could go on and on. Historically, it was this mystical power of yogis that was perceived as a threat by others.
Yoga: The Art of Transformation is an art exhibit of yoga-themed artwork in various mediums. This was the overarching plot throughout Manouso's workshop and one I was glad he integrated into our lessons. Those of you who have not heard the fascinating segment: "Journey of Self with Yoga Master Iyengar: A Talk By Manouso that took place during the opening in San Francisco of the art exhibit that is touring the country and has spawned a beautiful book, please click here and here. 
'Springtime in Atlanta':  A story about the warnings Manouso received about coming to Atlanta in April with the pollen count so high. He taught us how as aspiring yogis, we can learn to overcome the pollen through a series, which he took us through.  It was a series that took patience and the ability (which he encouraged throughout the workshop) to forget everything we think we should be doing in an asana and listen as if it was the first time you were doing the pose. I didn't feel I had problem with the pollen, until after the series. The pressure I had felt normal until the series helped clear it and I got hints of a nicer normal.

'Hip Stories':  Began with a story about how tales about his hip issues have gone through the Iyengar Network like the game "Telephone" where the story begins with he has a congenital hip defect that BKS has helped keep him from surgery and ends with something crazy like he has an elephant-sized spur shaped like an orangutang. This began our three-day hip work lesson that was brilliantly designed layer by layer to wake up our hips like they've never been woken up before.

'Palm Sunday':  was told on the Saturday before the religious holiday, Palm Sunday and began our lesson on the inner shoulder. Not to be confused with an earlier lesson on lifting the inner shoulder blade. Palm Sunday was what ad people would call a witty mnemonic device more than a story to help us remember to slightly bend our thumbs to better push our palms flat in Prasarita Padottanasana, which enables us work the triceps inward and back, widen our elbows, and engage our armpit chest to create a specific action in the inner most shoulder area.  (Remember, feel free to correct me here)

'Thoughts During A 3-Hour Headstand': The inner shoulder lesson progressed into Salamba Sirsasana with the story about a man who was determined to find out what went through yogis' minds during 3-hours handstands.  If you've done a five minute headstand and tried to double that time what goes through your mind?  Now do the math and…well, the only thing you can think about is how to stay in headstand.

'Third-Floor Observations':  On Iyengars 95th birthday Geeta Iyengar, his daughter, held a workshop to teach Indian yoga teachers how to instruct on pranayama.  Manouso tried to get into the workshop, but was relegated to the third floor where he observed the workshop from a perspective that turned out to be better than he would have gotten in a crowded room on the first level. This story was the segue into a progressive lesson in supta pranayama. It also taught us to be happy with what presents itself it may turn out to serve you better than you think.

'The Difference Between Medicine & Poison':  This was a story about how much is too much.  The difference between something being a medicine or a poison is "amount".  Learning to be discriminating about what is being taught and how much to apply the action to your body comes with practice (abhyasa) and self-study (svadyaya).  The story came into play somewhere around our 20 something super-wide Utthita Trikonasanas to help understand our hips and knees.

'The Big Hinge':  Is a story about hearing BKS Iyengar refer to the ankle as a "hinge" for years until  around the time of Iyengar's 80th birthday celebration; and not just 20 Utthita Trikonasanas that we did, but more like an entire day of Utthita Trikonasana & Utthita Parsvakonasana, the idea of "filling the voids" in the arc of the ankle and the ankle being a hinge began to sink in deeper.  The story was coupled with a lot of walking to a studio door hinge and making sure we understood what a hinge was; along with many Utthita Trikonasana, Utthita Parsvakonasana, Utkatasana, and Malasana variations.

'The 29-minute Setubandha':  Taught us to be wary of trying to practice with BKS Iyengar.  Manouso gives us a laugh as he describes a time when he decided he was going to practice exactly what BKS Iyengar was practicing. He placed his mat perpendicular to the wall and set up for a Setubandha from Sarvangasana where the tips of his toes (like Iyengar's) would be touching the wall. After a successful Setubandha, Manouso waited and waited and waited….wondering when Iyengar was going to come out of it.  You guessed it:  29 minutes later.   This helped to curb the discomfort of getting into various versions of Setubandha Sarvangasana that Manouso demonstrated for us afterwards.  Yes, I still feel it.   

'Who Touched My Robe': Involved a religious reference to Jesus's robe (Can you make Jesus possessive? Seems like he wouldn't approve.) and the woman who touched his robe in blind faith that Jesus could heal her and he did. Manouso's story referred to the ever growing sensitivity and subtlety of parts of our body.  Manouso furthered this by comparing how we touch fabric with our hands - because our fingertips are the most sensitive part. "What if through yoga we could make other parts of our body as sensitive as our fingertips?" He asked us. It is this involution, this intense focus that gets us closer to having that happen.  So imagine, he continues what BKS Iyengar can access.

The final half of the workshop was a Q&A portion and an eye-opening lesson on everything from Autism to Lymes Disease. The 'Mother who taught her son to blow his nose' was a segue to answer a Kapalabhati and Bhastrika Pranayama question.  The 'Stairway to the top of the Empire State Building' and the 'Paris Headstand' referred to stories about how frighteningly brilliant Iyengar is -- at one time figuring out how he could (though he didn't) navigate the stairs to the Empire State Building by utilizing a single body part per 5 flights of stairs thus dissipating the load on the body, while at another directing Manouso in Pune to put a therapeutic student into a headstand that he put Manouso in 17 years before in Paris.  Manouso confirms that Iyengar remembers this AND what he had for breakfast today- at 95.

After questions on a hip issue from someone who was unable to make the whole workshop and someone who has no certified teachers in her area, came encouragement for svadyaya (self study) and abhyasa (practice) on our own. He added his '20-Minute Hippy' story about how he gets up and for 20 minutes works on his hips then proceeds to other yoga. It's worth it to him.  It's only 20 minutes out of his morning.  Besides, he says, "what else do I have to do?"  Meaning it's not so much time out of your day, out of your life to take care of yourself and study your body - your yoga.  He adds that it can transform you and your practice considerably.

He ended the workshop much like he began with a call to action to find our inner being. He explained how historically staring into a candle flame or into a mirror was part of the yoga practice.  A 'Mirror Meditation' done for a designated time over a long period of time removes the chatter and the masks and gets you closer to your true essence of who you really are - it's what the eight-limbs of Astanga Yoga are all about. It's 'Yoga: The Art of Transformation'.  He explains that the first three Sutras of Pananjali say it all.  It's very simple really but it takes a lifetime of dedication and practice  --and like Manouso says, "What else do we have to do?"

I would like to express my deep gratitude for Kathleen Pringle and Stillwater Yoga for hosting; and a sincere thank you, Manouso, for sharing your story and encouraging us to use yoga's transformational power to help us discover the true essence of our own.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Training The Restless Mind With Abhyāsa and Vairāgya

abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyam tannirodhah - Pantanjali Yoga Sutra 1.12

Vrtti comes from the Sanskrit root vrt which means to turn, revolve, rollover.  Iyengar students are well-versed in Patanjali's description of Yoga in the second Sutra of the Samadhi Pada: Yogah cittavrtti nirodah. BKS Iyengar translates this as "Yoga is the cessation of the movements or fluctuations of the consciousness."

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar explains that Yoga is an eight-limbed method to calm the mind and direct the energy into contructive pathways.
As a mighty river which when properly harnessed by dams and canals, creates a vast reservoir of water, prevents famine and provides abundant power for industry; so also the mind, when controlled, provides a reservoir of peace and generates abundant energy for human uplift.
In Gem For Women, Geeta Iyengar sites the opening sutra 1.12 that states that study or practice (abhyāsa) and absence of worldly desires (vairāgya) is the remedy Patanjali offers to control the fluctuations of the mind. She sites another Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.14 sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkārāsevito srdha bhūmih with the interpretation that "this rigourous practice has to be long-lasting, uninterrupted, and performed with dedication and respect; then alone the foundation or the ground is prepared."

It's important to note that Geeta also adds a bit from the poet Vyāsa: sukhārtinah kuto vidyā kuto vidyārthinasukham, which means "knowledge cannot be attained by those who are given to pleasures and pleasures are denied to those who study."  It made me laugh because it's so true.

However, without constant practice or abhyāsa we will not gain the power and peace that is promised. It's not an easy task.  Vrittis of the mind are incessant and unyielding even in their most positive state. When the vrittis empower our fears, our pains, or our desire for a specific outcome instead of our well-being then we can get really overwhelmed and out of control.

From conception to three years of age (click link) our brain develops and even though our synapses expand and then go through a "pruning" process they are still highly vulnerable to outside stimulus. Early programming sets up the filter through which we interpret our world. I don't know about you but that was along time ago for me. Using a childhood filter that we had no real control over developing can wreak havoc on our adult life.

All of which is good reason no matter if you are an aspiring yogi or an aspiring conscious human being to heed Patanjali's advice. He even offers us a simple exercise to abhyāsa by switching our negative thoughts or emotions into positive ones as stated in Patanjali's Sutra 2.33 Vitarka badhane pratipaksabhavanam.  Krishna also talks about the two imperatives to controlling the mind in the Bhagavad Gita. "Undoubtedly, the mind is restless and hard to control.  But it can be trained by constant practice (abhyāsa) and by freedom from desire (vairāgya)."

Vairāgya means absence of worldly desires --that means we can't get attached to an outcome. So, like one of my teachers, Kquvien DeWeese has been teaching in class, we want to practice with discipline (tapas) and self-study (svadyaya). If we practice with an expectation like about say getting up into Urdhva Mukha Vrksasana, it can put us into an overly energized (rajasic) state of vrittis that can get us overwhelmed or worse injured.

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar mentions that yoga is also "wisdom in work or skillful living amongst activities, harmony and moderation." Geeta in Gem for Woman explains "The key to success is in effort. Vairāgya  or absence of worldly desires can be achieved by controlling the senses, by carrying out one's duties without thought of reward and by acting with goodness and purity."  I will end this blog with her beautiful summation:

Constant practice and absence of worldly pursuits are interdependent on each other --they are like the wings of an eagle.  But successful flight can be achieved only with the coordination between both wings.