Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

Curvature Before Length

A key therapeutic alignment principle is “curvature before length.”  This in essence means that we want to get our skeleton into the basic form of its “optimal blueprint” before trying to create length or extension.  Making sure the spine has the four curves it is meant to have — the sacral curve is convex, the lumbar curve concave, thoracic curve convex, cervical curve concave — does not only alleviate issues stemming from the spine, but helps the thigh bones fit better into the hip socket and the arm bones into the shoulder sockets.

How do we get curvature before length?  It is just doing the Anusara principles in the sequence we are taught them:  inner or expanding spiral, as it takes the thighs back, out, and apart, enhances the curve in the lumbar spine.  We do inner spiral before outer spiral, which in addition to toning the low back and gluteal muscles, lengthens the low back.  We do shoulder loop, which in addition to integrative the shoulders and hugging the shoulder blades onto the back of the heart, provides curve for the cervical spine.  We only do skull loop, which lengthens the cervical spine, after we have done the integrating and curve-enhancing action of shoulder loop.

If you think about the shape of the body from that perspective, it makes perfect sense that you would want to shape and integrate before pulling, stretching, or extending.  It is very hard to create a curve or integrate something if it is already pulled or stretched to or beyond its limit.  In its broadest sense, “curvature before length” serves us the way “start with the foundation” serves us.  We get into the right space and shape before going full out.  With the open attitude fostered by “first principle” (remember, first principle is always first no matter what is the focus of your class, your practice, or whatever you are doing on or off the mat), the basic alignment must come ahead of striving to expand further into a pose.  With curvature before length, we heal and grow.  If we try length before curvature, we might feel stretched for a moment, but may feel worse afterwards or will only have temporary relief.

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Shins In/Thighs Out (and Rabbi Hillel)

Rabbi Hillel is famous for having said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; if I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when?”  Taken in its best light (and not as the recruiting technique for going to war this quote has served), this means we must, as they say on the airplane, “put on our own oxygen mask first before helping others.”

I often think of this principle, when I am emphasizing the fundamental physical alignment principle of shins in/thighs out.  If you have taken even just a few Anusara classes, you have probably heard the teacher say “shins in, thighs out.”  It is really short hand for the action of muscular energy that hugs the legs to the mid-line, followed by the spiraling upward and backward expansion of inner spiral.

When applied with enthusiasm and in the right sequence, “shins in/thighs out” protects our knees and opens the groins, hips, and pelvic floor in a way that gives us greater access to finding the strength of our pelvic floor, low back and abdominal muscles.  It is a perfect example of an appropriate personal boundary:  it leaves us open and available to receive and observe all that is good, while creating a protective and appropriate boundary from which we can grow safely better to serve.

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Starting with the Foundation (and Samtosha)

Last night, at his workshop at Willow Street Yoga, Todd Norian discussed the niyama samtosha — contentment.  “Perfect,” I thought, because I had been contemplating the practice of samtosha all day.  When I had sat to meditate in the morning yesterday, it was hard for me to stay with my mantra or any sense of peacefulness, light, or delight.  Thoughts of the horrendous repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance kept arising.  Time to get back to the foundations of practicing!  As I began walking to work (past the Capitol), I brought myself back to the practice of samtosha, which I find one of the most useful practices for me.

Samtosha is the second of the niyamas set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are ethical precepts for living and for practicing.  In Patanjali’s eight-limbed, dualistic path of raja yoga, they precede the practices of asana (the physical postures), pranayama (breathing), and the various stages of meditation, which culminate in samadhi (equinimity or bliss).  When I am struggling with what I witness in the outside world, I always come back to the practice of samtosha. Some people may be naturally lighter-hearted than others, but contentment is indeed a practice, and it is a foundational practice.

When I practice contentment, I remember to be grateful for all that I have.  When I fully practice contentment, instead of becoming bleak and cynical (it is easy enough for me), I not only feel more naturally cheerful, but find I have have more strength to continue acting in accordance with my beliefs, even when I am confused, alarmed, outraged, and disgusted by what is going on outside.  When practicing contentment, I try to find my own light, I seek the love and company of friends, I join with like-minded persons to be moved to work for change, even if I do not trust it will make any visible change to anyone other than me.

FYI, Todd Norian will be at Willow Street Yoga Center all weekend.  If you are local and reading this in time, try to come for some of the weekend.  He is wonderful.

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Start with the Foundation (On and Off the Mat)

John Friend tells us in teacher trainings that when we are observing students, start at the foundation.  In order to help a student have the highest, most joyous and expansive experience in a pose, the foundation must be secure, aligned, and basically in the correct form.  If the student does not already have a steady and aligned foundation, adjustments to other aspects of the pose will not well serve growth and understanding.  When we are practicing on our own, starting with the foundation is also critical.  If we do not make sure that we have the physical, energetic, and mental understanding of a pose, at best, we will have little appreciation for our practice and, at worst, risk injury.

Off the mat, the principle of starting with the foundation is even more important.  If we do not teach all of our children basic reading, math, history, and civics, how can we have a functional democracy?  If a house does not have a sturdy, well-built foundation, what is the point in spending lots of money decorating it?  If we do not plant a seedling at a depth where it can be properly rooted and supported, how can it best flower and give fruit?  If we do not provide all with adequate shelter, feed ourselves in a way that fosters both the environment and natural health, build an infrastructure that makes drinking water and breathable air for all, and have proper respect for the process of dying, how much true health care can come from privatized insurance, however regulated?

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When I am Settled

When meditating and practicing in a group, if I am feeling settled and grounded myself, it does not disturb my practice that others near me are fidgeting or not fully present.  Just as I can meditate on a bus or in a waiting room, I am responsible for descending into my own inner space.  If I am unsettled myself, then I am more likely to notice others fidgeting.  But it is not their fidgeting that disrupts my practice, but that I am having a day when it is hard for me to center on my own.

It is true, though, when practicing with a group, that sometimes we will all be deeply centered and then the power of the group can bring all of the individuals to a deeper experience.

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This Morning I Started to Wear Brown and Then Thought Better of It

This morning, without thinking, in apparent keeping with the dark, wet, gray day, I picked out a brown sweater to wear.  Then I thought, “what, am I crazy? I could bring color into the day.”  Now I am dressed in the colors of the ocean on a bright, sunny day.  To add some more light to my day, I started the day with some backbends and arm balances.  If I had the luxury of staying inside all day, I perhaps would have done a more inward practice.  I have committed to go out, though.  To be happy to go out in the rain, I needed to create an abundance of bright, wide awake energy on the inside.

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Nightblooming Jasmine in Winter (and sadhana)

I walked into the dining room yesterday and caught a hint of an exquisitely sweet fragrance.  I knew the paperwhite bulb I was forcing was only in bud.  What was it?  I went to look and saw that there was a single blossom on the nightblooming jasmine.  Inside, in winter, the single bloom emitted as much apparent fragrance as dozens outside.  I have had this plant for 12-13 years, since it was in a three inch growers’ pot.  The last time I repotted it was several years ago, but I faithfully bring it inside and out every winter/summer cycle, and feed and water it plentifully.  In response, it keeps getting fuller and offering blooms.  When it is outside, it can have dozens of blooms at once.  Sometimes I harvest the buds before they open and use them to scent green tea.  When I find open blossoms in the morning, I harvest them by the handful and put them on my alter or in the bedroom, where they will provide scent for a day or two.  Outside in the summer, while profuse, the blooms last only a single night.  Inside in winter (with an average 24-hour a day temperature of 61-62F), the blooms, though coming more occasionally and only a couple at a time, can last for three or four days.

I think the blossoms of yoga and meditation sadhana (practice) are not dissimilar to the way this plant blooms.  With steady care, they will always bloom, though sometimes more than others, sometimes with a different character, and sometimes with just growing periods with no apparent blossoms.  Sometimes, there will be a wild profusion of vision and offering, but those tend to be fleeting.  The memory of the intoxicating perfume, though, keeps us tending the practice, knowing it will come again.  During the time between the wilder experiences, the nectar still comes, and though in less dramatic ways, perhaps all the sweeter for coming in a time wh

en we are just practicing and tending and not expecting any great revelation.

jasmine

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Winter Yoga Greetings (Web Version of Winter Newsletter)

Happy new year to all! I hope 2010 is off to a good start for you. My days are full with work and practice and teaching and photographing and cooking and indoor gardening and telling stories (aka blogging) and connecting with friends and the general miscellany of life.

My intention for the year to approach each day with a sense of fullness and wonder, whatever comes. A key element of feeling things are deliciously full rather than overly busy is appreciating how things are and can be ordered in space and time. This winter, in classes and workshops, we will be exploring the mysteries and techniques of sequencing on and off the mat. Come join me.

The Willow Street session started this week, with my first classes this Saturday, January 16th (Level 2 @ 8:30 and Gentle/Therapeutics @ noon on Saturdays in the Takoma Park studio). It’s not too late to register. It’s great to come every week to get all a session has to offer, but feel free to drop in any time. Register on-line at www.willowstreetyoga.com or in person.

William Penn House all-level classes continue on Tuesday nights @ 6:30, with the special reduced rate of $12 for not-for-profit workers, students, and seniors. This month’s Wednesday night intermediate/advanced group practice proceeds are going to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Feeling a bit tight from the cold? Join me from 3pm-5pm this Saturday, January 16th at Capitol Hill Yoga for the first “Serenity Saturday” restorative workshop of the year. There will be a special focus on opening up muscles tightened from the cold, including self-massage techniques. To register, please visit www.capitolhillyoga.com.

Dreaming of Springtime in the garden? Put it on your calendars: I’ll be offering “Yoga for Gardeners” again on Saturday March13th, just in time for the season to get started. More details at www.rosegardenyoga.com.

Looking forward to seeing you soon.

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“First principle” (and akrama and krama)

When I think about the Anusara alignment principles in the context of the tattvas (see earlier posts), I think about “opening to grace” appearing in two places on the tier.  As “first principle” it is the first among a larger sequence about how we come to the mat, rather than just the first of the physical principles.  “First principle” not only starts the practice and the dialogue, but is already there. It is, in this sense, so fundamental that it is not part of the sequence, but is sequenceless (akrama).  If you are fully conscious of “grace” and can embody it in all aspects of your physical, energetic, and mental day to day existence without further instruction, study, or practice, then there is no need for other practice or instruction (this I think is a very rare being, and certainly I’m not such a being).

The next set of tattvassuddha vidya, ishvara, saddha shiva, and shiva-shakti (see link above), correspond to the Anusara alignment principles of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which although they are themselves described in sequence, are fundamentally sequenceless as they happen all at the same time and are more elemental than the practice of the physical/energetic alignment principles in sequenced practice.

In this way of understanding the play between the sequenceless and sequenced, we have a universal “first principle” that embodies the purpose of all we do on and off the mat.  It is followed by how we want to practice, described in a way that becomes less of just a concept (which as a universal concept is akrama) and more of a practical understanding (which applies when we are in space and time and therefore in the krama of embodied existence).  As we dance in this play between the sequenceless and the sequenced, we come to practice (or to do any activity) with the “attitude” of wanting to live the “first principle,” to know and experience what is fully present and not bound by time and space.  We then (because we must) study and practice specific “alignment” to try and express this attitude with our “actions.”

The physical/energetic alignment principles then come in as a the way of better refining, studying, and practicing the desire to recognize with mind and body the “first principle.”  The sequence of “open to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral, organic energy” comes then at the level of physical and mental practice to return us back to “first principle.”  “Open to grace” is first in this sequence, too, but as “first principle,” for me, it is something more than the first of the alignment principles.  “First principle” is not just the start of how we practice when we practice Anusara yoga, but the whole reason for practice.  It is the universal, overarching, blissful element of being that draws us to the practice because of our yearning to know it.

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