Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

Discussion of physical aspects of yoga (on and off the mat)

Pre-Season Gardening (and diksha)

In yoga practice the concept of diksha — initiation or threshold — carries with it a sense of right timing and conscious understanding of readiness for the next level.  For example, knowing I was not yet strong enough, this past weekend I chose not to try to jump from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to svanasana (headstand), but instead concentrated on doing the poses one at a time, even though I was surrounded by people who could do the transition with ease and my ego was challenged.  Until I am stronger and better able to hold the alignment in poses at that level, I would be too much at risk of hurting my neck and shoulders.

In the garden, it is easy to be fooled by a beautiful weekend to move right to activities that are still 3-4 weeks premature.  Even though it will hit 70F this weekend, it is not time to plant (other than perhaps an experimental row or pot of kale, chard, or beets, which like the cold).  The best gardening you can do in the beginning of March when the weather is swinging wildly from below freezing to unseasonably warm is to read and plan and start seedlings indoors, just like it is best to warm up and work on strength, alignment, and flexibility before going for harder asana in your yoga practice.  It will be tempting to get out this weekend, but do the prep stuff and the clean up.

Here are some favorite books of mine to get ready for planning.  It is mostly more practical stuff (rather than the super glossy, beautiful garden as splendid art and architecture picture book reading) with some food and yoga overlap and a bias for small urban gardens.

The Yoga of Herbs — An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine, D. Frawley and V. Lad (Lotus Press, 2d Ed. 1988)

Gardener Cook, C. Lloyd (Willow Creek Press 1997) (OK — this one is kind of cooking, gardening porn)

The Edible Container Garden — Growing Fresh Food in Small Spaces, M. Guerra (Fireside, 2000)

The Bountiful Container, McGee and Stuckey (Workman Publishing Co., 2002)

Small-Space Gardening — How to Successfully Grow Flowers and Fruits in Containers and Pots, P. Loewer (The Lyons Press, 2003)

Kitchen Herbs — The Art and Enjoyment of Growing Herbs and Cooking with Them, S. Gilbertie (Bantam, 1988)

The New Kitchen Garden, A. Pavord (Dorling Kindersly Ltd., 1996) (Also pretty and glossy, but still practical)

Share

Kleshas (and the absence of helicopters)

Last night when we walked out of William Penn House from the Tuesday night yoga class onto East Capitol Street, we could see a convocation of police cars in front of the Capitol — presumably in preparation for the President’s speech.  Karen asked, “where are the helicopters?”  “Maybe, Obama doesn’t need them,” I replied, “maybe he is choosing not to live in fear.”  There weren’t any army or police helicopters all night.  This was the first Presidential speech in eight years where helicopters did not relentlessly drone overhead, calling people to be afraid and to act from a place of fear.

Patanjali’s yoga sutra II.3, says:  avidyha asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah.  BKS Iyengar translates this sutra as follows:  “The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are:  ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I’, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life.”

The world is far scarier now than it has been for most of the past eight years.  In some ways, though, at least in my neighborhood, it feels less frightening because the signs of being afraid are not being emblazoned everywhere to call all to share in the fear.

We can practice choosing to turn to a place of strength rather than fear on our yoga mats.  When we choose to do the difficult poses that are at our edge that bring up fear and aversion, we can notice the fear and aversion, but not become fully engaged in it.  By using the Anusara principle of opening to grace, we can accept fear and aversion as part of human being, but then soften and open to the full range of being, and not just cling to the fear.  Instead of avoiding the poses or beating ourselves up for being afraid, we can choose to use the yoga principles we know to invite a full experience of the moment and the possible poses.  Remaining open to witnessing the full range of our being through the pose, we next engage muscular energy (strengthening by embracing the muscles to the bone, hugging into our center [midline], and drawing from the periphery into our core).  Having found our strength, we expand more fully (expanding/inner spiral).  We then have space to draw more deeply into our core power (contracting/outer spiral).  With this balance of embrace and expansion of ourselves, we then can fully embody strength by reaching outward (organic energy) and making offering.  This pulsation of principles in poses has led me to discover physical and energetic abilities in my middle age I had not dreamed possible.

Off the mat, the same principles can lead us to move from love and strength instead of fear and clinging.  As I got into bed with the peace of the night uninterrupted, I pondered how these principles can manifest and gave a profound thanks to whomever decided the harbingers of fear — the helicopters — were unnecessary.

Share

Midnight Yoga

Every once and a while, I find myself restless at bedtime or wakeful in the night.  The following series serves to make it easier for me to go to sleep and for me to feel fully rested as if I had not been short sleep:

1.  Vipariti karani (legs up the wall).  Start with legs up the wall for five minutes or longer, then move legs into baddha konasana (butterfly) for several breaths, then put them back up the wall.  While your legs are up the wall, first just watch the breath.  Then concentrate on the breath, inviting the exhales to be twice the length of the inhales.

2.  Twisted forward bend.  Using a bolster and a folded blanket (or two or three folded blankets) lengthwise on your mat, place the left thigh next to the edge of the blanket pile, allow yourself to sit heavily.  Staying sweetly grounded, hug your hips together to embrace your core and then draw the left waist back as you bow forward onto the support of the blanket. You can allow your forearms and hands to rest on the floor or you can bend your elbows a little more and tuck your hands between the blankets under your forehead.   Keeping the attention on the breath, inhaling lovingly draw in, exhaling more fully accept the support of the blanket.  Hold for a few minutes and then repeat on the other side.

3.  Supported balasana (child’s pose).  With your knees wide apart and the big toes together, draw the blanket pile between your knees up to mid-thigh.  Place another blanket (or a pillow) across your calves.  Bow forward onto the support of the blankets.  Half way through, turn your head to the other side.  If your thoughts are still active, just let them be and turn your attention back to the breath.

4.  When you are ready to come out of balasana, tuck your toes under and lift your hips into adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog).  If you’d like, you can stay here for several breaths with your head supported by the blankets.  When you are ready, walk your hands back to uttanasana (standing forward bend).  Quietly and mindfully get back into bed and lie in savasana.

Sweet dreams!

Share

Daffodils

Daffodils and tulips have arrived in the shops.  If you’ve forced bulbs (I didn’t this year), they are blooming (give or take a few weeks).  The arrival of the Dutch flowers and the forced blooms lets us know that spring is soon to arrive.  If you look carefully, you can see that the early bulbs are starting to come up.  If you are lucky enough to have them growing in your garden or a neighbor (who wants to share), it is a great time to bring in forsythia and pussy willow cuttings for forcing.

How wonderful to enjoy these harbingers of spring in the last few weeks of winter.  I get a similar feeling when I am given an assist to be able to do a yoga pose that will be out of reach for me to do by myself for some months or perhaps longer.  When an assist opens me to an understanding of how I can grow, just as the arrival of the dutch bulbs and the forced flowers give an early reminder of spring, my heart opens.  Given this inspiration, this understanding of the possibility of growth and flowering, I am inspired to turn around and share this delight with others.  How could I not want to share?

Share

Ether (the Mahabhuta akasha)

Ether (akasha) is the fifth of the mahabhutas.  In science and perception, it is the space between the other elements, it is that in which the other elements reside.  It is to some degree, the critical element of how we are able to perceive the other elements.  I find focusing on the Anusara alignment principle of “open to grace” is the best way to experience the element of ether in myself.  By softening, opening, and inviting spaciousness, I can better experience the subtle elements and appreciate how it is that I experience them.

The subtle elements or the panca tanmattras are smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rupa), touch (sparsa), and sound (sabda).  The subtle elements are not what we sense (which is composed of the mahabhutas) nor are the tanmattras our sense organs.  Rather the tanmattras are, as it were, the space in which perceptions arise, the ability to be perceived.

The next sets of elements are the panca karmendriyas, the organs of locomotion, which correspond to how we physically move, digest, and change in the physical world, and the panca jnanendriyas, the organs of perception or cognition, which correspond to our sense organs themselves.  Our movement in and perception of the world bridges the physical elements, the perceptability of the physical world, and ourselves as physical beings, beings who move in the physical world, and beings who perceive the physical world.  All of this, I think of as needing space or residing in space.  As I consciously think of space giving a place for the world, my movement in it, and my perception of it, I become more conscious of consciousness.  The physical practice of “opening to grace” and experiencing the element akasha makes possible for me in my practice knowing or experiencing a greater consciousness.

To start discovering your own understanding of akasha, try this meditation:  listen to the sounds beyond the room without trying to analyze or change them.  Appreciate how far in space your senses and consciousness can be.  Then bring your attention into the room and hear the sounds in the room.  Then open your ears to the sounds within you — your heart beat, your breath.  Then open to all the sounds (don’t try to change or analyze them), both those physically far away and those within your own body, and be aware of them as all residing within your own consciousness.  Appreciate that your consciousness is as spacious as the world around you and within you.  Rest in the space of consciousness.

See whether spending a few minutes using this meditation technique helps you when your day has gotten too busy with work, errands, family or other demands.  I find it very helpful.

Share

A Patch of Sunlight

This morning when I went for silent worship, I was in a seat that was in a delicious, warm patch of sunlight.  Like a cat in such a spot, I was perfectly content to be still and completely happy.  It is good, sometimes, to have stillness come easily, especially if it has been a challenge in recent days.

When my students ask me about starting a home practice, I suggest that they start with their favorite poses.  If we start with what is challenging or what we like least or what we think we need to do because we think it will be good for us, it is easy to get frustrated or to find something else to do.  Better to start with what is easeful and inviting and then work in the challenging aspects then not to practice at all.

Share

Intention

When I came out of my afternoon asana practice and meditation, I picked up the John Friend Teacher Training Manual to look up one of my favorite passages.  In describing the “attitude” that brings us to our deepest practice, John Friend writes that there are two reasons to practice yoga:  “1.  Co-create in the art of life.  2.  Realize and awaken to our divine nature.”  John Friend, Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual (9th Ed., Anusara Press 2006).  He explains that sometimes we come to our mat because we are happy and we want to celebrate.  Other times, we are sad or confused and we want to remember our essentially divine, blissful nature.  This particular teaching has continues to resonate for me.  I find great comfort in it because it recognizes that we do forget; we will not always act perfectly.  All life, though, is part of our practice, and we can keep trying to co-create and remember the light in all beings in our daily lifes just as we keep can coming to the mat.

Share

Agni (the fire element)

Agni or fire is the third of the mahabhutas. Fire does not just give us warmth and light.  It also transforms.  Just think of what happens to the humble ingredients of flour, water, yeast, and salt when they are baked. When working with agni in our asana practice, using the Anusara principles of alignment, I have drawn on the intersection of pelvic loop and kidney loop (which together create the action of uddiyana bandha, using these principles as I understand them to activate and strengthen my core.

One of the niyamas of Patanjali’s eight-fold path is tapas, which means heat or austerity.  We are exhorted to bring fire or fervor to our practice to experience bliss, to know true consciousness.

Fire without balance, without a sense of detachment or surrender, though, will burn us up.  We must be careful how we work with agni as the element.

Note:  Agni is also the name of the god of fire.  Not only do we need to be careful how we draw on the fire element — this town’s culture places perhaps too much value on “fire in the belly,” but we should be wary of how we invoke the gods:  India’s nuclear missile program is named “Agni.” Of that invocation of the gods and of fire, I am afraid.

Share

Yoga of Housekeeping

Last week Orie suggested that as I have a “Yoga for Gardeners” workshop, I should also do a “Yoga of Housekeeping” workshop.  A blog post isn’t a workshop, but here are a few preliminary thoughts on yoga and housekeeping.

From an alignment perspective, I have found that the Anusara principles of alignment make safe everything I do off the mat, as well as on.  Overwhelmed by all that needs to be done? Doing heavy lifting?  Bending and stooping?  Reaching for something way up high?

First, soften (open to grace).  Appreciate that you have a home and things to clean.  Honor each item in the house.  Things have energy, too., and they like to be touched and cleaned.  If you have anything that you do not appreciate or does not fit in the house, give it a new life in a new home (freecycledc is a great way to pass things forward).

Use muscular energy, drawing the muscles to the bone, hugging into the mid-line, and drawing energy into the focal point (for most housecleaning activities, this will be the pelvis).  Using muscle energy will definitely help to keep you from tweaking a muscle or straining the low back or shoulders. When you are reaching, keep the arm bones integrated by hugging the shoulder blades onto the back and then reach from the waist, though each rib to extend the length of your torso (organic energy).

Especially for bending and lifting, after you bend your knees, hug your shins in (muscular energy), take your inner thighs back and apart (inner spiral) and then tuck your tailbone (outer spiral).  If you just bend from the knees but hunch your back, your low back will still be vulnerable.

Switch sides for activities like sweeping, vaccuuming, and scrubbing.  Yes, it can be difficult and awkward, but it’s worth it to shift sides.  Imagine doing all of your yoga practice only on one side.  How much imbalance would you be encouraging?

The first niyama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is sauca, which means cleanliness or purity.  It is easier to think and live and be hospitable in a clean home.

The first yama is ahimsa, or non-harming.  Do your best to use safe, biodegradable cleaning products.  Your skin and respiratory system will be grateful.  So will the earth.  Try to make cleaning your own space and act of honoring your self, your home, and the greater home of the earth.

Fully absorb yourself in the task of cleaning.  Make it a meditation.  Integrate fully the act of cleaning, the item being cleaned, and you as the cleaner.

Finally, be playful.

Share

Prithvi (the earth element) and Muscular Energy

The first of the mahabhutas is prithvi or earth.  When I think of the earth element, I think of stability, grounding, earthiness, nurture.  My experience is that I can more deeply connect to this element in ourselves by emphasizing what John Friend has termed “muscular energy” in my yoga practice.

As with all practices from an Anusara perspective, I try to start with the principle of “opening to grace.”  In this context, opening to grace can mean being sensitive to our earthiness and how it manifests energetically in us.  I have found that it can lead to my foundation and connection to the earth and invite a soft weightiness.

Muscular energy has three essential physical/energetic actions:  (1) hugging all of the muscles to the bone; (2) drawing to the midline (our central energetic channel); and (3) drawing energy from the periphery to the focal point of the pose.  See J. Friend, Anusara Teacher Training Manual (Anusara Press, The Woodlands, TX).  These three actions combined help stabilize us; they nurture by inviting us to give ourselves an unceasing self-embrace initiated from our opening to the good in the energies around us (like the loving hug of an “earth mother”); and they bring our focus from the physical extremities to our core, thus reminding us to bring our physical body to the support of the energetic body and spirit.

When I am feeling ungrounded, unsettled, or needing a little love, I remind myself to emphasize muscular energy and open to and invite in the light-filled energy all around me.

Share