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Should You Practice a Set Yoga Sequence, or Free-Form?

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Here I am in Natarajasana (King Dancer), San Francisco, 2013. (In the background is my friend Marianna Shilina-Vallejo; I love the look on her face.) This pose has been common to my practice both in the set Bikram sequence and in the free-form vinyasa classes I've taken.

As part of a 200-hour yoga teacher training, I'm studying Mark Stephens' book, Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes. Stephens’ background is not far from my own experience with yoga, as he comes from a decidedly West Coast perspective, as someone trained in and teaching in California, and my yoga practice was largely formed by the same influences. He references two Master Yogis I also know of, Erich Schiffman and Shiva Rea. As I've previously mentioned, Schiffman’s video with Ali MacGraw formed the basis of the beginning of my yoga practice in the 90s. I’ve also taken, I think, if memory serves me right, at least one class with Shiva Rea at the studio where I practiced Baptiste-style yoga in Seattle, Shakti. So even though it’s relatively easy for me to connect with this author, I’m still aware of his perspective, and even bias.

When I analyze a work of writing, I like to first make myself aware of an author's bias. This comes from years of teaching university-level rhetoric and composition; it's an exercise in critical thinking. We often use the word "bias" in a negative sense these days, but I don't mean it that way at all. Everyone has a particular bias, a way of approaching a subject that reveals a perspective or stance in relation to that subject. 

Stephens' obvious bias is toward the art of sequencing. As someone who offers sequencing workshops and has written this book, he would definitely be biased toward "free-form," or crafted sequencing, for example, over practices that use set sequences, such as Bikram.

I can't fault him for this bias, as he has obviously wrestled with the question and come to a conclusion that crafted sequencing is better or at least preferred to set sequences, enough to devote his life to guiding others in the art of sequencing. But whether a set sequence or free-form is truly better is a worthwhile question, one I haven't seen tackled much in yoga circles. I'd like to explore it further with you.

First, let's look at what Stephens finds valuable in the set sequences of the Ashtanga and Bikram styles of yoga. Most importantly, in his opinion, is the "perfect mirror" the set sequence provides. While the yoga poses and the order they are done in never changes, the yogi does, he says, "making the experience of doing the sequence somewhat more a reflection of the person doing it than the sequence itself." 

In my own practice, I can attest to this. From about 2002-2006, I was a devoted Bikram yogi, and over the course of that time, I witnessed dramatic progress in every single pose in the 26-asana sequence. Not only that, but I felt transformed in many other areas of my life as well. I put a suite of extreme allergic reactions into remission, I drastically lowered my alcohol consumption (not compatible at all with hot yoga!), and I felt a rare clarity of purpose, an energetic ambition to live well in the present and let anger and pain release into the past. A long sufferer of PTSD-related nightmares and insomnia, I finally experienced better sleep. Least importantly, I lost weight, and most importantly, I felt stronger, more flexible, and overall, healthier.

Now let's look at Stephens' argument against set sequences. He acknowledges that because the yogi always knows what the next pose will be, they can provide "a deeper absorption in what is happening right now." But he also points out that sets can make students anticipate the next pose too much, which "detracts from the experience of being fully present in the current moment in connecting breath, body, and mind."

It sounds like this is definitely the case with some yogis. But in my experience, if you get into what I call “yoga head space” and stay in the moment, you don’t think too much about the next pose. Not that knowing the next pose in your body is bad, either. A set sequence can remove the need to “prep” the body for a pose you don’t know is coming until it’s cued. So much also depends on how the sequence is cued. Changing sequences every class can feel really random and lacking in flow, the cues awkward. I’ve been much less likely to injure myself in set sequences. 

I also want to say this: Each pose is like a universe. It contains within it millions of micro-adjustments, a vast space of exploration. You don’t really get the sense of this until you practice with set sequences. It’s one of the things I miss about the Bikram style.

Stephens' biggest argument against set sequences is "the potential strain caused by doing repetitive actions." The example he gives is from the primary series in Ashtanga Vinyasa style, which leads yogis through Chaturanga Dandasana more than 50 times. He says:

Even if one is properly aligned and engaging effective energetic actions, this can be a very challenging sequence that, done repetitively,  can strain the shoulder and wrist joints as well as the lower back, knees, hips, elbows, and neck.

This is a strong observation, and in my own experience with this particular pose flow, I can say that Mark Stephens is absolutely right. I've seen the toll that Chaturanga takes on me and on other yogis, particularly women. Generally speaking, female biology puts our strength and center of gravity not in the upper body where this pose flow demands emphasis - but lower, in the hips, butt, and legs. When friends of mine try yoga and pronounce it's not for them, it's usually because of discomfort or even pain in this particular flow.

But is this the fault of set sequencing - or of specifically Chaturanga Dandasana (especially done 50 times)?

I argue it's the latter. There is no Chaturanga in the 26-pose Bikram sequence, and after four years of frequent (5-7 days per week for 90 minutes per class) practice, I did not feel the pain that comes from repetitive strain. However, I did feel it years later, after practicing Baptiste-style vinyasa, where no two classes were ever the same. The problem, in my opinion, was that Chaturanga Dandasana was a core element to the style, so most classes drew heavily on it.

Therefore, the problem isn't with "set sequence," but with the way sequences are designed, whether set or crafted. 

And that brings me back to the phenomenal value of Stephens' book. Despite my disagreement with his argument in favor of free-form sequencing, an argument I don't think he needed to make, I'm absolutely jazzed to learn how to sequence yoga poses. It seems like the Holy Grail of yoga. I've always either attended yoga classes, where a teacher is there to guide me, or when at home, used a book or DVD or my memory of the Bikram sequence, for example, to provide a structure. I've never felt really comfortable designing my own flows. But this book is already changing that. If you're a yoga teacher, you should definitely get a copy, and it's helpful for anyone with a home practice, too. It's also on sale right now through Amazon.

So far, Yoga Sequencing has provided me with some techniques for initiating the yogic process, which is the centering step at the beginning of every yoga class, and I've gained a good introduction to the idea of warming and awakening the body. A lot of this is also building on and giving specific explanation to what I've intuitively picked up through thousands and thousands of hours in yoga classes over 25 years. For example, I've long understood that there are types of poses grouped by major aspect, such as standing poses, back bends, hip openers, and inversions, just to give three. I did not know that "standing asanas are the safest family for warming and opening the entire body in preparation for more complex asanas," but on an intuitive level, it makes sense to me. 

Beyond that, though, there is MUCH more to learn. Take the issue of externally- versus internally-rotated hip movements as just one variable of caution within the standing asanas alone. Stephens says not to move back and forth between these types of asanas and to instead separate them, always placing the externally-rotated poses before the internally-rotated ones. Whew, there are a lot of rules for me to master here!

For the teacher, there is plenty to consider both in teaching a set sequence and in designing one anew. For the student, it comes down to what feels right in your body. While I had no pain with the Bikram sequence, someone else might. And while I did have chronic pain from years of Chaturanga, and it is a common complaint especially among female yogis, there will always be those who embrace and love that flow. 

My advice? Listen to your body, not your ego. After I'd been practicing Bikram for four years, I decided to try vinyasa flow, and this "dancing on your mat" captivated me enough to keep me for a decade. As I aged into my forties, however, the practice no longer served me as well, so I tried something else. And something else... AND something else.

There's a lot out there for you to explore in the yoga realm, so don't give up if a sequence or class or teacher doesn't seem right for your body. Something else will.

Now tell me your thoughts. Are you pro-set sequence? Or do they bore you to tears? What yoga style do you love?

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

After 25 Years of Practice, I Sign Up for My First Yoga Teacher Training

Amazing Grace, The Seventy-Something Power Yogi: Could You Keep Up?

That Reaction We Have to Our Bodies in Photos

 


What's the Motive? Chris Patchell on Deception Bay

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I'm happy to bring back the popular "What's the Motive" series here on the blog. Author of pulse-pounding thrillers, Chris Patchell goes well outside her own comfort zone with her latest novel, Deception Bay.

Here's Chris Patchell:

My fifth novel, Deception Bay, is about mystery writer Austin Martell, who is called away from his life in New York to return to his hometown on Whidbey Island when he hears that his mother has suffered an accident. It doesn’t take long for Austin to find out that his mother’s accident may have been something more ominous. Austin soon finds himself in the center of a real-life murder investigation, with a killer who will do the unthinkable to keep the truth from getting out.

Here’s a bit of what’s in store for my readers…

The boat pitches and he loses his footing as he scrambles toward the cabin’s opening. He grabs hold of the ladder and climbs down into the darkness below. The water is already thigh-deep—as heavy as wet cement as he struggles toward the red light.

The radio.

Teeth chattering, he drives his legs forward, gathering the last bit of strength. Stumbling. Reaching. Grasping until he makes it. He tears the radio microphone from its perch. Thumbs the button. He screams the words out in a torrent of panic hoping somebody will hear.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Dreamcatcher. We’re three miles east of Deception Bay. We are sinking. Repeat. We are sinking.”

And that’s just the beginning…

What’s the Motive?

There I was, heads-down working on my next psychological thriller, when one of my author friends pinged me on Facebook with an idea. She and a few of her other author friends were putting together a boxed set of romantic suspense stories. Would I be interested in joining the fun? As an author, it’s good to stretch your wings and try something outside of your comfort zone, so I stopped what I was doing and gave my good friend Fiona Quinn a call. 

Not only is Fiona a good author, but like me, she has a keen eye for business. We chatted about the project, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. The boxed set Love Under Fire has been a whirlwind kind of a project. There are 20 authors besides me who have written original stories for the set.

Working with so many talented authors has been a fun and instructive experience. But what makes this project extra special, is that we’ve teamed up with a 503(c) organization called Pets for Vets. My dog, Sasha, was a rescue from a high-kill shelter. She was a mom at a puppy mill who was never properly socialized, and when she was finished delivering puppies, they dumped her. She’s a sweet little Yorkie just brimming with anxiety from living in a box for so many years. She’s a total nutter, and I couldn’t ask for a more loyal friend. What I love about Pets for Vets is that they pair shelter animals up with Veterans in need of support animals. It is a total win-win.

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This project presented some unique challenges for me as a writer.

  1. There was a word count limit! Not to say that I’m pathologically long-winded, but my novels usually weigh in ~98,000 words. Deception Bay came in just under 60,000 words. While this may be easy for some authors, for me, this was no easy feat. I had to cut sub-plots and slash sections to stay within my limit. In doing so, I learned a valuable lesson that every writer should know—keep only what matters.
  2. The protagonist for the book, Austin Martell, is smart, funny, and a little on the narcissistic side. Smart and narcissistic? No problem, I’ve got that covered. But funny… I think I’m capable of being funny in person. I mean, if you and I are having a conversation, I may be able to come up with a witty line or two, but doing it on paper… That’s a whole other thing. Some days funny is a foreign language, and it takes time to layer humor into a scene. Then there are those magical days when as Jim Rennie from Under the Dome would say, you’re just “feeling it” and being funny comes naturally. Those days are pure gold, and I made the most of them when editing this book.
  3. And then there’s romance… Typically, I write hard-core suspense, so this story had me exploring my “softer side.” I’m really excited about the result. While Deception Bay is a departure from the dark suspense my fans are used to getting from me, I think they’re really going to love this story. The humor in the book is offset by some wicked intense scenes, and when Austin falls for the one woman who seems immune to his charms… Well… It makes for some pretty fun reading.

Challenges aside, writing this story was a labor of love. I started writing it a few years back. It was the thing I wrote when I was between other things, and though I loved the characters and the premise for the story, it didn’t fit in with my other books, so I set it aside. I never could fully shake the story though. Every now and then, I would pull it out and tinker with it. There were days when I would be hunched over my laptop giggling to myself while I was editing because spending time in Austin’s head was an awesome place to be. I hope readers agree. 

AdobeBio 
Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award-winning novel Deadly Lies. A tech worker by day and a writer by night, she pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest.

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Read the Dublin Murder Squad Series to Learn Character Design

3 Dublin MS Novels
French saved me from mystery genre burnout.

I used to read a wider range of books, and by that I mean I used to be much more forgiving as a reader. But as my reading and writing tastes have grown sharper, I've become a lot more discriminating. I'll start a book and give up on it if it's not working for me or can't compete with any number of extremely well written games or books or TV shows I have at the ready. I bet many of you are no different. After all, we're not going to read another standard mystery with all the tropes (tough-guy detective, a slaughtered female body found on page one) when we can watch Ruth Langmore successfully wrestle with her "white-trash" identity in Ozark.

One of the writers who's best captured my attention--and held it--is Tana French.

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Other images this page, source: www.tanafrench.com

When I picked up Faithful Place in 2016, I was pretty jaded, as a reader. I'd spent the previous five years reviewing, critiquing, and in some cases, rewriting hundreds--yes, hundreds--of mostly mystery-themed story games. During that time, I read a lot of mystery novels, everything from cozies to thrillers to classics. Before that, I'd interviewed four Northwest mystery authors for a Seattle Woman cover story. In 2016 I was nearing the end of my own mystery series--the Dreamslippers--inspired by the supernatural mystery games and books I'd enjoyed. By the time I stumbled upon Faithful Place in a used bookstore, I was in danger of becoming burnt out on the genre.

But Frank Mackey's riveting first-person voice reignited my love of mystery to a white-hot point. From the stunning open paragraph, I was hooked:

In all your life, only a few moments matter. Mostly you never get a good look at them except in hindsight, long after they've zipped past you: the moment when you decided whether to talk to that girl, slow down on the blind bend, stop and find that condom. I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of mine face-to-face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place.

Full disclosure: I'm Irish enough to have had a grandfather with flaming red hair and who knew all the old drinking songs. Alas, he lived thousands of miles away from my military family and then passed away when I was only five, so I never learned any of his songs. But it's possible there's a cadence in the Dublin Murder Squad that appeals to me on some visceral, perhaps even genetic, level.

But I don't think you need to have a family tree that includes names like Sisley McKay and Skeets Larue in order for French's characters to resonate with you. They're incredibly well developed, authentic narrators who even when problematic gain your sympathy. 

Curiously, each Dublin Murder Squad novel was written from a different character's point of view. After reading just a few of the books in the series, you start to get a 360-degree look at the squad, as each character views his or her work from a unique perspective.

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The debut novel in the series--In the Woods--follows Detective Rob Ryan, a murder squad veteran who becomes undone by a case he pushes to investigate despite its connection to a cold case from his past; as a child, he survived what appeared to be a grisly attack. Though the brilliant novel averages at a bewildering four stars on Amazon--it deserves five!--it earned praise from the likes of NPR Correspondent Nancy Pearl, "A well-written, expertly plotted thriller," and The New York Times Book Review's Marilyn Stasio, who says, "Even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods." With a bit of elitism at work in the praise, Stasio nails French's literary writing quality, which should appeal to even readers who perhaps don't normally succumb to the allure of genre fiction.

These characters feel both fresh and authentic in part because they constantly thwart cliché expectation. Though French's debut centers on a detective driven to solve not just the case before him but the case in the past connected to his own deepest trauma, he remains (or at least tries to remain) detached, even matter-of-fact about it:

Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again.

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Broken Harbor's Scorcher Kennedy bursts into the reader's consciousness with a thrilling bravado that could be mistaken for typical tough-guy talk, if it weren't for the fact that the case ends up dismantling him in ways he can't possibly foresee:

Some of the lads can't handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can't cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I've handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets down. Someone has to do it. If that's me, then at least it's getting done right.

Rob Ryan, Frank Mackey, and even Scorcher Kennedy must all three reconcile evidence in the present with memories of the past, though none of them look through rose-colored glasses at the past, nor are they scarred by it any more than they are affected by what's happening to them now. In this way French turns tried-and-true mystery fodder on its head, making the characters and their lives in the here and now the driver of the plot. You want to know what happened in the past, yes, but if you reach the end of the novel, and the past still hasn't revealed itself, it doesn't really matter. You've come to know the character fully, suffered and died and been resurrected with him, whether he finds the answers or not.

Thetrespasser

Perhaps French's greatest character design achievement is that of Antoinette Conway in the latest book in the series, The Trespasser. Conway's character is an achievement not because she's the most compelling of the series but because she thwarts our expectations best. A woman is a rarity on the Dublin Murder Squad, and of course the target of sexual harassment and hazing. Though tough beyond belief--she can physically defend herself against a stalker, she plays hardcore video games to unwind, and she does not believe in romantic love--Conway wrestles with a narrative of distrust that threatens to tear her away from a vocation for which she has a passion like no other. 

The Associated Press says, "Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there," and I have to agree. For me she surpasses other faves--Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah--and the ones whose popularity I can't grok (I'm looking at you, Megan Abbott). I'm four novels into the six-book series and can't wait to dive into the other two. Interestingly, French's most recent publication is a standalone, The Witch Elm. It looks wonderfully compelling, but I do wonder if the Dublin Murder Squad will go on, or if French herself has had a bit of burnout.

If you've read French, tell me what you think of her work below. If not, does this make you want to become a DMS fan? I think game writers and book authors alike can learn a lot from her exemplary character development.

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Tana French.

What Would You Like to Read on the Blog?

 

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

It's been a while--since January, actually--since I've posted on the blog, and for that I apologize.

Long story short, I've struggled with what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past year, since I took that visiting professorship at Webster University, AND AT THE SAME TIME, MY INDIE GAME STUDIO BLEW UP. Don't get me wrong; this is a good problem to have these days. But when your priority list exceeds the number of hours in a given week, some things need to drop off, and sadly, this blog was one of them. 

But I've missed it. And you--its reason for being. As I look ahead to hopefully a more life-balanced rest of the year, I'm mulling over what this blog should and shouldn't be, and I'd love to get your opinion. So I created a survey.

It's short. Survey Monkey tells me you can take it in two minutes. If you've got two minutes to spare, please weigh in on the types of topics and guests you'd like to see on the blog.

The survey is completely anonymous. I'm not collecting any data on who fills it out or when or why or what your first-born child's name is, I promise. I will analyze the results in the aggregate and pay attention to any "other" comments you've written, no names or strings attached.

And if you'd rather share your opinion in the comment section below this post, feel free. The survey asks general questions about reading and gaming habits and interests, and then basically asks what you'd like to see here on the blog in the future. I'm all ears. Thank you!

In case you missed that survey link above, here's a button! Go ahead and push it! Or click on it! Just go there!

 

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'Bound to the Truth' Wins indieBRAG, Third in a Row for Author Lisa Brunette

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Seattle, WA--June 26, 2017--IndieBRAG announced today that Bound to the Truth, the third book in Lisa Brunette's Dreamslippers Series, was chosen to receive the indieBRAG medallion. A mark of excellence in the self-publishing industry, the medallion is awarded only to 20 to 25 percent of books submitted for the award. Lisa Brunette has received a medallion for all three books in the Dreamslippers Series to date.

“We’re thrilled to award a third medallion to Lisa Brunette,” said indieBRAG President Geri Clouston. “Bound to the Truth stood out to our reviewers in particular for the excellent writing style--the author’s distinctive voice, with its pleasing, evocative rhythm--and for the polish and attention to professional copyediting.”

IndiBRAG, LLC has brought together a large group of readers, both individuals and members of book clubs, located throughout the United States and in ten other countries around the globe. All ebooks are subjected to a rigorous selection process. This entails an initial screening to ensure that the author’s work meets certain minimum standards of quality and content. IndieBRAG reserves the right to reject an ebook during this initial screening assessment for any reason. If it passes this preliminary assessment, it is then read by a selected group of members drawn from their global reader team. In both the initial screening phase and, if appropriate, the subsequent group evaluation phase, each book is judged against a comprehensive list of relevant literary criteria.

"It's an honor to have had all three books chosen for the medallion," said Lisa Brunette. "The Dreamslippers Series is quirky, genre-crossing, and female-centric, which made it a tough sell for traditional publishing. But indieBRAG readers have shown that the self-publishing arena is the perfect place for experienced writers like me to take chances and experiment."

Bound to the Truth is the latest novel in the bestselling, award-winning Dreamslippers Series, which features a grandmother/granddaughter PI duo who use their psychic dream ability to solve crimes. In Bound to the Truth, their client thinks she knows who the killer is, but Cat and Amazing Grace don’t believe her. Did Nina Howell really fall under the spell of a domineering, conservative talk show host? The case brings powerful new developments in Cat’s dreamslipping skill as she works to find the answer. 

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Bound to the Truth received rave reviews from bloggers across the indie community. “I found myself completely submerged in this story of intrigue," said Book Fidelity. J Bronder Book Reviews, which has given all three books in the series high praise, said, “I loved following along as they had to dig deep to find the killer.”

About the indieBRAG Medallion

BRAGMedallion.com is owned and operated by indieBRAG, LLC, a privately held organization that has brought together a large group of readers, both individuals and members of book clubs, located throughout the United States and in ten other countries around the globe. The word “indie” refers to self-published books, while B.R.A.G. is an acronym for Book Readers Appreciation Group. The name “indieBRAG” and the B.R.A.G. logos are trademarks of indieBRAG, LLC. The B.R.A.G. Medallion is a certification trademark owned and controlled by indieBRAG, LLC.

About Author Lisa Brunette

Lisa Brunette writes books and games. All three books in her bestselling Dreamslippers Series have won indieBRAG medallions, and the second book was also named a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award and nominated for a RONE Award. Brunette’s game-writing credits include hundreds of titles, played by worldwide audiences in the millions, for Big Fish and other publishers. New games Unknown Sender: The Woods and Matchington Mansion both release in 2017. She also has a long list of bylines as a journalist, short-story writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Woman, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere.

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