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Mushrooms Become Less Mysterious - with the Right Field Guide

Missouri's Wild Mushrooms

By Lisa Brunette

Back in January, I'd asked mystery author and wildlife biologist Ellen King Rice to help me ID some of the mushrooms I'd found growing in the woods, as well as here at Dragon Flower Farm. As you might recall, we ended up turning the post into a series of tips on how to ID mushrooms, which is something no one should take casually, at least if you're looking to eat them.

One of Ellen's tips was to get a good field guide. This spring, I came across the perfect field guide for my mushroom madness: Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, by fellow St. Louisan Maxine Stone. The book is a great reference guide for ID-ing mushrooms, and it includes 24 recipes for using common edible mushrooms found in Missouri - delicious-sounding dishes like barley and blewit salad and candy cap sauce.

Missouri's Wild Mushrooms is published by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), an agency I can't say enough good things about. For one, they do amazing things to help propagate the use of native plants. Through their annual seedling program, I just scored 24 seedlings for a buck a piece - yes, that's only USD 24 for 24 small trees and shrubs - including blackberries, pawpaw, and white fringe tree. They also host a wide range of fun, educational events to teach the public about everything from how to tap maples for syrup to the best spots to catch a glimpse of bald eagles in winter. This is in addition to their ongoing mission to conserve and preserve Missouri's natural world.

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MDC puts out an award-winning magazine called Missouri Conservationist - I read mine cover-to-cover every month - and they also publish a series of books, of which Missouri's Wild Mushrooms is just one. You can order MDC books in-person at conservation and nature centers or online; check out their full offering at the MDC Nature Shop. I use their Nature Notes journal to keep track of our progress at Dragon Flower Farm.

Also on wildlife biologist Ellen King Rice's advice, I've downloaded the iNaturalist app, though again, its value is limited. Now armed with that and mushroom expert Maxine Stone's excellent wild mushroom field guide, I will revisit the mushrooms in the previous post and see if I can't get some closer IDs.

Amanita Orange 2019
Photo taken in 2019 at a trail near the World Bird Sanctuary.

The first one is an iconic Amanita, most likely muscaria, although iNaturalist says it's Amanita cesarea. Most of the photos I'm finding of cesareas don't have the white flecks of fungus on top, though, so I'm going with Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. According to the MDC, Amanitas account for 90 percent of mushroom-related deaths. In Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, Stone lists the Amanita bisporigera, or "destroying angel," as the top poisonous mushroom to avoid in Missouri. "Ingesting one cap of a destroying angel can kill a man," says the MDC.

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Destroying angel. Photo courtesy MDC.

Yeah, so fine to look at and even touch - according to Stone, you can't get poisoned unless you eat them - but I wouldn't even think of tasting anything that looked remotely like either of these - amanitas are a no go.

Stone says the "lookalike" mushrooms are where a lot of people can go wrong, too. She shows which ones to watch out for in particular. She also cautions against eating mushrooms you find in your yard or the wild first without consulting a mushroom expert. Where to find one of those? Here in Missouri, she suggests the Missouri Mycological Society. But lots of states have mushroom societies; here's a full list.

Orange_Fungus_2019
Photo taken in 2019 near the Meramec River.

This specimen looks very much like a cinnabar polypore, Pycnoporus cinnabarinus, judging by the guidelines in Stone's book. It has no lookalikes - which aids in identification. Though beautiful, the cinnabar polypore is not considered edible.

If I had a sample, rather than just this image, I could make a spore print to lock in the ID. Stone walks you through the process in her book, and it's fairly simple - basically setting the cap gills-down on a piece of white paper and waiting anywhere from two to 24 hours for the spores to drop. Plus, as Stone points out, "Your spore print may be a beautiful piece of art and even frameable." I can't wait for some mushrooms to pop up so I can try this!

Tree Condo Fungus1 2019
Also taken 2019, near the Meramec River.

Note all 'fruiting bodies' appearing aboveground are technically mushrooms; whereas, fungi grow mainly underground, so what you see in these two photos really are mushrooms. As pictured above, they grew in a large group, or condo, as I called it. Here's a closeup.

Tree Condo Fungus2 2019
Very likely this is dryad's saddle.

Like the cinnabar polypore, this is another 'pored bracket' type of mushroom. These can grow both singly or in layered groups. This one looks very much like the dryad's saddle, Polyporous squamosus, which is edible. But again, I'll take a spore sample first before cooking this up if I encounter it again. Another good tip from Maxine Stone is to keep a little bit of any mushroom you eat in case you need it for ID purposes in the event that someone reacts to it. Even if they're safe to eat, some people are more sensitive than others.

This last series of mushrooms - which all grew here at Dragon Flower Farm - are obviously the gilled cap-type, or Agarics. 

Hand Colony 2019

Mushroom Cap  and Violets 2019

Mushroom Gills 2019

None of the gilled cap mushrooms in Stone's guide look like these, unfortunately. The closest is the edible meadow mushroom, but the cap isn't a good match. iNaturalist says it's in the genus 'Leucoagaricus,' of which there are 90 species. The one native to North America, Leucoagaricus americanus, is edible. Again, I'd have to have a sample and take a spore print to be sure, but that's a likely guess. Maybe I'll also reach out to Maxine Stone and ask...

Fungus Cups 2019
Cup fungus, here at Dragon Flower Farm in 2019.

Lastly are the delightful cup and bird's nest fungi, which Ellen ID'd easily in our previous mushroom post. None of these are edible, but Stone agrees they're a treat to find, and I bet if you're on a mushroom hunt with the kiddos, this would be a popular one to ID.

Spore Pops 2019
Bird's nest fungi, Dragon Flower Farm, 2019.

Thanks for sticking with me on this mushroom journey. I'm curious whether any of you are getting out into the woods these days. With the lockdowns now extended to state parks, preserves, and other natural areas, it's been tough for me to find a way. We've had a long spate of dry weather - one day the temperature soared to 88° already. But we're looking at a very rainy week ahead, so maybe we'll get the same mushroom-and-fungi extravaganza we got last year here at Dragon Flower. As Maxine Stone says, "Missouri is a great place to find all kinds of wild mushrooms." What's popping up out of the ground in your state? Tell us in the comments below.

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Garden Stars of the Year: How to Win with Native Plants

 


Giveaway! Win a Signed Copy of Doug Tallamy's 'Bringing Nature Home'

Bringing Nature Home

Last night we attended a Partners for Native Landscaping event at the Missouri Botanical Garden: "Nature's Best Hope." The event featured native plant expert Doug Tallamy, with a presentation based on his latest book. If you haven't read Doug Tallamy, I highly recommend him. His first book, Bringing Nature Home, helped spawn a rapidly growing movement to focus on native plants in home gardens. With his latest book, he expands upon that to imagine what we could do if we stitched together the fragments of true nature we have left by converting other public and private swathes of land to native plant ecosystems. It's a compelling, inspiring argument.

To help promote these ideas, we're giving away a free, signed copy of Bringing Nature Home. All you have to do to be eligible to win is subscribe to our newsletter. If you're already subscribed, you're automatically in the pool, but please do tell your friends! The drawing happens on March 31, 2020, so sign up before that cutoff date.

Tallamy's lecture at the Botanical Garden was sold out, and today's full-day workshop on native plants is as well. At the reception before last night's talk, Anthony and I had a nice long chat with Marsha Gebhardt, president of the St. Louis chapter of Wild Ones. She mentioned that she and the other Wild Ones leaders (all volunteers) feel like "victims of their own success," as their events are so popular, they're investigating larger meeting venues and generally feeling the growing pains of a swelling membership base.

It's great to see the enthusiasm for native plant gardening, and we hope it continues.

I do want to share an observance I've made after spending a good deal of time self-studying both permaculture and native plant gardening: Permaculturists and native plant proponents need to work together. I see a lot of the same arguments being made by both, which is a key place to have a discussion. But then they're sometimes working at odds due to blind spots on both sides:

  1. Permaculturists can actually do damage to their own and connected ecosystems with their use of invasive species. For example, autumn olive might be a great choice for soil remediation and people food, but even if it's slashed and mulched later, birds could have spread its seeds to sensitive natural areas. It's also just not going to do much in terms of attracting and feeding pollinators and interrelated species.
  2. Native plant gardeners miss the importance of growing one's own food and other human use products, which can mitigate the damage of the agricultural food system. For example, if you're buying 100% of your groceries from a store that trucks most of its supply in from out of state and out of country, you're part of a system that depletes topsoil at alarming rates and poisons a dwindling watershed, no matter what good you're doing in your own yard with native plants.

We're managing our best at Dragon Flower Farm to bridge the two camps, taking the tried and tested practices from both and applying them to our 1/4-acre. I'm sure we'll make mistakes, and we don't claim to be purists by any stretch of the imagination, but we try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We wish you well in your own efforts at sustainability and lifestyle gardening, and as always, tell us what you think in the comments below. Good luck on the giveaway, too!

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Much Ado About 'Nothing' - How to Convert Your Lawn in 5 Steps

 


Mulch Ado About 'Nothing' - How to Convert Your Lawn in 5 Steps

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A driver for St. Louis Composting dumps a load of mulch at Dragon Flower Farm. All photos mine unless noted.

By Lisa Brunette

Our modern prejudices have turned "dirt" into not much more than a four-letter word. Dirt connotes something of absolutely no value - or else something distasteful, a thing that's been sullied against its more preferred state of pristine perfection. Of course there's also the sexy connotation of "dirty." Still, dirt is hardly ever seen as something good unless it is a subverted turn-on. "Dirt poor" is somehow even less desirable than simply poor; no one wants to be a "dirt farmer," and "hitting pay dirt" is the equivalent of being able to turn worthless straw into gold.

But as with a great many things, we seem to be realizing dirt's true worth just as we're losing it. Increasingly, along with fears about overpopulation and climate change, eroding topsoil is of great concern, more and more people talking about the importance of soil health. "You're nothing but dirt" is never meant as a compliment, but, we're beginning to realize, maybe it should be.

When it comes to dirt and your average backyard gardener, the traditional route to better results is to amend what you've got with fertilizer. But I've always favored organic methods, so I've never added bags of synthesized nutrients to my soil. The closest I've come was in the early 2000s, when I added a substance called TAGRO to my yard in Tacoma, Wash. TAGRO is pasteurized wastewater biosolids. Yup, that's a hefty euphemism for "people poo." But hey, what used to be called "night soil" has been a thing for centuries, and the brilliant folks working for the City of Tacoma have just found a way of making that an awful lot nicer

Mulch8
Our pickup truck, getting loaded down with mulch at St. Louis Composting. Photo source: Jason Ives.

Still, it's a shit-ton of work to have a truckload of TAGRO dumped in your driveway and then have to distribute it by wheelbarrow and shovel all over your yard every year or so. And even though that particular soil amendment is environmentally friendly, it doesn't really mimic the decomposition process you see in a healthy ecosystem, such as a forest. So when I stumbled upon The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book at a Tacoma Library book sale, my gardening life was forever changed.

A renegade in the gardening world, Stout launched a mulching movement in 1971 with her claim that all you have to do to achieve a no-work garden is keep a thick layer of mulch on your ground year-round. But over the years, this has trickled down as only a decent appreciation for mulch, which almost everyone agrees discourages weeds and helps keep moisture in the ground, minimizing the need to water. But most people stop there, spreading an inch or two of beauty bark or some such thing, believing they've done their mulch duty. Oh, but it's so mulch more.

Stout herself recommended an 8-inch thickness of mulch, and beauty bark, which has often been dyed and treated and is of little nutritive value, probably would have made her scoff. She recommended freely available, natural material such as hay, straw, leaves... as she described it, "any vegetable matter that rots." That whopping 8 inches makes a big difference. Stout claimed that the seeds in hay didn't stand a chance, as the thick layers prevented them from germinating.

Before I read Stout's book, I'd been experimenting around with mulch myself. I tried a very thin layer of hay from a freebie bale, and all of the seeds sprouted, turning my front garden into a scraggly hayfield! I've been off hay as a mulch ever since (probably unfairly), and while I now always lay down at least 4-6 inches of mulch rather than the ideal 8, I can attest to the virtues of a thick mulch layer.

Ruth Stout
The vintage 1971 cover. Photo source: Amazon.

One of the best uses of mulch in my experience is in converting an area of turf grass to nice gardening soil. I use what some people now call the "sheet-mulch method," which is basically a decomposable barrier layer, such as an old wool carpet or cardboard boxes, underneath a thick mulch. I've done this three different times at three different homes over the past nearly twenty years, and the result is always amazing. I can't stress this enough. It's an affirmation of the natural decomposition cycle, proof that nature knows best.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Cut the grass, but don't use a lawn mower bag. Leave the cut grass on top of your lawn. Every bit of green is a juicy dose of elemental-packed living material that will feed your mulch. Grass, in fact, is high in nitrogen.
  2. Spread a layer of cardboard boxes over the top of the lawn. You can throw weeds, twigs, leaves - anything organic - on there, too. As long as you can smoothly smother them with cardboard boxes, it's all good. If the cardboard is thin, I only cut the flaps, fold, and leave it double-thickness. If you get premium, thick boxes like what they ship new toilets in, use a box cutter to slice down one side fold and spread out the cardboard. It will cover more ground this way. You want to make sure your coverage is seamless, without any cracks or holes where grass can poke through. You shouldn't see any grass when you're done. If you're butting up against a cement or brick walkway, extend the edge of the box onto the walkway a bit to decompose any grass growing over it. You can always push it back later.
    Mulch2
    The sheet-mulch process in action. Taken this summer as we continued to mulch over the rest of the 1/4-acre lawn.
  3. Don't bother to remove packing tape, as that's too time consuming. The voracious microbes, insects, and other critters in the soil you're making will eat the box and sort of "spit up" the tape strips months later, and you can go collect them out of your yard then. It's really no big deal.
  4. Next, spread your mulch over the top of the boxes, to at least my 4-6 inch preferred thickness. If you can go 8, why not? I could devote a whole blog post to the topic of which kind of mulch, but for now I'll just say source something of high quality. I've never used bagged mulch from a chain store. In the Pacific Northwest, mulch made from city maintenance on parks and public spaces was readily available to me (and sometimes free) through local municipalities, but here in St. Louis that is sadly not the case, so we purchase from St. Louis Composting, which offers several mulch varieties at a very reasonable price. We've tried both bark and leaf. Now just like you didn't want to see any grass poking out from under the cardboard, you don't want to see any cardboard peeking out from under the mulch. Cover that stuff!
  5. Lastly, be patient. It's best to set down your sheet-mulch in the fall, wait for the decomposition miracle to occur through the winter, and voilá, you're ready to plant.

Again, this works so well I can't for the life of me figure out why gardeners still opt to either a) till the soil so deep that you're burying the grass under upended dirt or 2) strip off the turf layer and then place a weed-choking layer of black plastic or cloth over the dirt instead. I suppose if you can't stand to wait just one season, the sheet-mulch method isn't for you, but if you can't plan ahead at least that long, then I have to wonder why gardening is of interest at all. Gardening is all about planning ahead.

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Our first batch of sheet mulch at Dragon Flower Farm.

I've even had otherwise reliable sources such as a prominent conservation group recommend a combination of glyphosate and black plastic to me in order to convert turf, and this just boggles my mind. That method is a lot harder, less environmentally friendly, and in my opinion, it means you're back to square one when you lift the black plastic and find a nutrient-deficient bed of stripped-off, hardpan clay or what-have-you underneath. With the sheet-mulch method, you're turning the undesirable grass into decomposing green matter that feeds the dirt you will later plant with something more desirable.

Now let's talk about weeds. If you follow my instructions above, weeds will not be a problem. I promise! We only had to mildly weed in the spring after sheet-mulching all fall and winter, and once we fill in the space with plants, I bet the weed meter will drop to near zero. Many of the plants that found our non-turf earth weren't weeds at all but desirable volunteer natives: a sycamore tree, a ground cover of violets, milkweed vine, virginia creeper, a lovely flowering spurge, and sensitive ferns. These plants provide exponentially better food and shelter for pollinators than ornamental exotics, so the fact that the sheet-mulched ground provided an encouraging foundation for them is a great sign.

Here's how the back forty looked mid-mulch, with only a portion of the left side covered.

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And here's where we are now, the 'almost after' picture. We'll get that final strip... soon. The greenery you see growing through the mulch is Viola sororia, or common blue violet, a Missouri native beloved by butterflies. It's also edible!

Mulch1

In the Pacific Northwest, where I lived for 15 years, it's common for homeowners to opt to go lawn-free. Here in the Midwest, not so much. I think the case against grass has already been thoroughly made by others, but if you've read this far even though you're clinging to your lawn, maybe you should just try googling, "Why should I get rid of my lawn" and take a trip down that delightful rabbit hole.

It's been a lifetime since Ruth Stout wrote her wonderful book, and while you can still get a copy, and you should - as it's a great read - there's been some exciting discoveries about dirt since then. Soil is on a lot of people's lips these days - yes, sometimes literally. I'm slowly making my way through a surprisingly dense, but not thick, paperback by Toby Hemenway, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. The no-nonsense Midwesterner in me had to look past the Gaia bit in order to give it a try, and I'm glad I did. While Hemenway is way more (seemingly intentionally) provocative on the subject of native plants than need be, like me, he picks up on the way our language has maligned "dirt" in the opening to his chapter on soil. (Maybe we're two minds who think alike, or maybe it's just ridiculously obvious that dirt's been treated like dirt for too long.) His treatise on soil blew my mind as a symphonic description of what exactly is happening after you place that layer of cardboard and mulch. I leave you with this excerpt:

The soil organisms in a properly tended garden will furnish almost all the fertilizer that plants need. As the life in the soil eats, excretes, reproduces, and dies, it works an almost alchemical change on organic matter and minerals in the ground. Through soil organisms, nutrients are broken down, consumed, transformed, rebuilt into body parts and energy-containing molecules, and broken down once more. And during these many-vectored flows of matter, a small surplus of nutrients constantly trickles to the plants. Just as bankers and merger specialists make their fortunes by skimming money from the colossal flows of commerce, so too do plants derive their sustenance by absorbing the surplus nutrients that whirl out of soil organisms' life cycles. Fertility comes from flow. A more vigorous soil life heaves more nutrients into the flux for plants to divert, releasing a surplus of fertility during the cycle from raw material to living body to waste and back again. Here, as in so much of the ecological garden, the process, the activity, the relationship, is paramount. Healthy soil and plants are created not by the simple presence of nutrients and soil life, but by the briskness and depth of their flows and interconnections. Savvy gardeners know this and will do all they can to feed the life of the soil. (72-73)

What's the dirt on your dirt? Share in the comments below.

This post is not sponsored, and we received nothing in return for our references to any of the named products.


The Fifth Anniversary of the 'Dreamslippers,' a Yogi Detective Series

BOX SET 2

By Lisa Brunette

Back in 2013, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery novel. I had interviewed Seattle's mystery literati for a cover story in Seattle Woman magazine, and I'd also steered the storylines on hundreds of mystery-themed computer games for my employer at the time, Big Fish Games.

Another of my chief inspirations, perhaps oddly enough, was the 20 years' experience I had as a yogi. I'd practiced anywhere from three to seven days a week, first the grueling style known then as Bikram (hot) yoga and then the very energetic Baptiste-inspired style called Shakti (like dancing on your mat).

I also lost Grace, my would-be mother-in-law, to pancreatic cancer in 2011. She'd made a great impression on me in the short time I knew her and was a huge inspiration for the character Grace in the series. She was also a very practiced yogi herself.

After that, I knew I wanted to do two things with the book: 1) create an older female character and 2) make her a magical sort of yogi. 

I was also a huge fan of the TV show "Medium," about a psychic who helps an Arizona police team solve crimes. Allison DuBois, played by the fabulous Patricia Arquette, often struggles with the limitations built into her gift, sometimes making mistakes. Her fallibility, not to mention her authentically portrayed marital relationship, made the show rise above the fray (for seven seasons!). And there's one more thing. I'm someone whose childhood trauma led to PTSD nightmares, which plagued me for many years. So the often disturbing subject matter in DuBois' dreams resonated with me personally. I was used to looking for the truth in my dreams, sorting out the terror from the lessons.

All of that background and interest is reflected in the Dreamslippers Series, a three-book saga (plus novella) about a family of psychic dreamers who solve crime using their ability to 'slip' into your dreams. Solving crime that way is a lot tougher than you can imagine, as it's not like the culprit will dream of his guilt, pointing the erstwhile dreamslipper toward all of the clues. The matriarch of the family, Amazing Grace, supplements her sleeping skills with waking-life pursuits such as meditation, visualization, yoga, and even a somatic dance style called Nia, which I practiced myself for a few years. Young Cat McCormick, the hero of the inaugural book in the series, has an entirely different take. She bends and breaks the rules, and she capitalizes on an emotional connection to solve a mystery involving a Midwestern, fundamentalist preacher and his (not-gay-at-all) right-hand man.

BRAG medallion ebook CAT IN THE FLOCK

I released Cat in the Flock under my own imprint, Sky Harbor Press, in July 2014. It zipped up the Amazon sales charts, occupying the No. 1 spot in the Private Investigators category within the first year. It was praised by Kirkus Reviews, Midwest Book Review, Readers Lane, Book Fidelity, and countless other review sites, blogs, and institutions. I was contacted by a Hollywood producer about rights, and later, by more than one game studio interested in making an interactive novel out of it. Cat in the Flock won me my first IndieBRAG medallion, awarded to only the top 20 percent of independently published books. I would also be awarded the IndieBRAG for the other two books in the series.

Bolstered by the success of the first book, and full of more Dreamslippers stories to tell, I followed up with Framed and Burning. This second book in the series is set in Miami amidst the high-stakes art world, and its prescience can be seen in the Jeffrey Epstein case today. Cat and Grace follow the clues to a murder frame-up, which takes them into the Darknet and the powerful players behind a child pornography ring. While the characters and scenario are fiction, it's based on a great deal of factual research. I also lived in that colorful Florida city for two years while working toward an MFA in creative writing, which I earned from University of Miami. And I was once married to an artist, so my experience of that world is very much first-hand.

FRAMED AND BURNING IndieBRAG 2

Framed and Burning was a finalist for the prestigious Nancy Pearl Book Award, and it was also nominated for a RONE Award, in addition to winning the IndieBRAG.

The third book in the series, Bound to the Truth, is in a lot of ways my best. It continues the series' sex-crime theme, but back in Seattle, with an informed, fair portrayal of the Emerald City's sex-positive community. Cat and her grandmother visit a sex toy shop and a sex dungeon in their quest to track down the killer of a prominent Seattle architect. It was my answer to the huge disappointment that is Fifty Shades of Gray, not to mention an homage to Seattle's openness to all, quirkiness of the best kinds, and kinkiness in spades. As a divorced woman in her late 30s living in Seattle in the 2010s, I don't think I could have had a safer, more colorful, more ripe-for-literary fodder dating experience in any other city.

The Bound to the Truth cover is my favorite of the series, too. All three covers were created by Toronto designer Monika Younger, who's designed book covers for several of Harlequin's mystery imprints and brought a great deal of experience and vision to the series.

BOUND TO THE TRUTH 1400x2240 indieBRAG

After that, I went back and tackled Amazing Grace's origin story in a novella, Work of Light. It's only found in the ebook boxed set. Set in the past, when Grace first discovered her powers, it follows her to an ashram in the 60s, where she uncovers the guru's true nature.

I'm grateful to the many BETA readers who gave me feedback on drafts of the books. We writers are far too close to the work to judge it subjectively, especially the further into the drafting (or development) process we get. My BETA readers put on their "cruel shoes" and gave it to me straight, and I revised to the best of my abilities. I think it shows in the higher-than-average quality for not just an indie but for publishing as a whole.

Another dose of gratitude goes out to all of you readers who told your friends about the books, posted reviews hither and yon, and otherwise showed support for my indie publishing endeavor. When I look back on those heady three years with the Dreamslippers, I see that it truly takes a village to raise a book!

Finally, it's time for an important announcement:

In honor of the fifth anniversary of the series, the ebook boxed set of all three books plus the bonus novella is entirely FREE wherever ebooks are sold, except Amazon, where it's only 99 cents (that is the minimum price we are allowed to offer through Amazon). So please tell your friends. And thank you for your interest in my work. I'm so thrilled you find something of value in these words.

Handy book links here.

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

Yoga_san_fran
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.

By Lisa Brunette

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.

Note: This post isn't sponsored or the result of an affiliate relationship, and we receive nothing in exchange for mentioning any of the books here.

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.

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?

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