Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

Madya Vikashac Cittananda Labhah (and moving from the core)

After my morning practice, while I was riding on the bus to Georgetown yesterday to volunteer at the Lantern, the sutra “madyama vikasha cittananda labah,” Pratyabijna Hrdayam, 17, started resonating in the forefront of my consciousness.  Swami Shantananda in The Splendor of Recognition, translates this sutra as “[t]he bliss of Consciousness is attained through the expansion of the center.” What an elegant reminder of the true purpose of practice and the essential basis for the alignment principle of “stabilize the periphery; move from the core” about which I wrote yesterday.

When we practice, we seek to go inward to discover that of our true nature that is light-filled and joyous.  We do so not just to stay in that place still and inert, but so that we can then extend out into every thought and action from a place of illuminated, blissful wisdom.  It will not change the fact of difficulties, challenges, strains, etc, but when we stabilize the outside, remember to go inward, and find the inner space of stillness and light, then when we move back outward into the world, we will be better able to respond in the highest.

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“Stabilize the Periphery; Move from the Core” (and blogging)

For the past week, I have been contemplating, practicing with, and teaching the axiomatic sequenced alignment principle of Anusara yoga “stabilize the periphery; move from the core.”  It means exactly what it says.  We stabilize the outer edges of the pose (feet, hands, head) and move from our core to get into the full expression of the pose.  For example, have you noticed how often the yoga teacher will have you put your hand on your hip when you are first in a standing pose and working the alignment of the foundation and core body?  Only when the central alignment has been reached, do you extend the arm and hand to complete the full form of the pose.  The reason Anusara teachers are taught to use this technique is that it stabilizes the periphery, so that the students can concentrate on the major alignment and then move from the core.

Off the mat, this principle means to me that we start with our overall goals and needs and the essential principle of trying to move from and respond in the highest before getting distracted by the details of whatever is going on.  As I contemplated and taught the principle this week, I found myself thinking and talking about lots of different examples on and off the mat.  The central idea was there, and then as the classes progressed, depending on the level and the students, I wove in illustrative examples that made sense with what was happening in the classes.

I found myself struggling, though, to write about this principle.  I had too many different things I wanted to explain about how it helps in yoga asana both as an important therapeutic practice and as a way to expand one’s core abilities.  A plethora of examples of how it works off the mat came to mind.  To write coherently when one has limited space/attention span of reader/number of words, one has to first stop getting into the details and start with the central theme.  Then it is necessary to flesh out the central theme with very select details that enhance the understanding of the central premise.  The writer chooses not to scatter the central theme into so many details that the central point is obscured or lost in the details.  My struggle to write about this principle served then as a perfect example to myself about the very principle about which I was choosing to write.  I needed to “stabilize” the details, so that I could express coherently the core principle.

Do you have good examples of how applying this principle has helped you on or off the mat?

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Sunchokes (and Anusara “first principle”) (a bit out of date, but not really)

I realize that this blog entry was in my drafts page; I never hit the publish button.  As I ponder the few intervening weeks of snow (in some ways it feels as if time just stopped, except for the work that piled up and the lengthening of the light of day), I treat this as a reminder to myself to come back to “first principle” to respond with the most light — even in this unusually harsh winter:

On my way to Friends Meeting yesterday, I stopped at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market yesterday to buy whatever was fresh.  When I got in line with a daikon radish, a bunch of turnips, and a couple of leeks, I noticed the way the woman in front of me in line was holding her selection:  sunchokes.  Her hands were held as if she had just received prasad — the offering sometimes made after a puja so that the fruits of worship may actually be tasted and injested, incorporated with our senses and our whole bodies into our being.  “Your hands and those sunchokes are so beautiful,” I said, “may I take a picture and use it for my blog?”  “Sure,” she replied, “and shifted her hands a little so that it would be easier for me to frame the picture.”  We talked while we waited in line about potential ways to cook sunchokes and how happy we were that the farmers (these particular farmers’ must be incredibly good at working with cold frames) were out all year.

Seeing this offering of the earth itself, the farmers who tended the earth and grew the vegetables, the workers who made and repaired the vehicles that enabled the food to be brought into the city, the city and neighborhood for allowing the market to block off a street, the shoppers for supporting it, brought me back to my contemplations this week of what “first principle” means to me.  I mentioned in an earlier post that my focus for winter classes would be Anusara sequencing principles.  No matter what else we are doing or focusing on, it always starts with “first principle.”  The “first principle” is what we call in Anusara “opening to grace.”  For me, a large part of “opening to grace” is a recognition that all the nourishment we receive is a gift.  When we practice such a recognition, then we practice receptivity, openness, gratitude, courtesy, respect, delicacy, and reciprocal desire to serve and make offering.  How could one mindfully receive nourishment such as this fresh, beautiful food on a bitterly cold winter day, and not want to celebrate it by giving thanks, nurturing the earth, supporting the farmers and the market, learning how to prepare it as tasty and healthful as possible, and share it and other things with those around us?

gift

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An Opening

Last night in group practice, we were working on the mini-arm balances.  As I demonstrated a pose, my spine shifted.  From the middle thoracic vertebra right behind the heart all the way up to C7, each vertebra popped sequentially, releasing energy not only from each vertebra, but upward.  I felt an incredible lightness moving from the heart space all the way through the crown of my head.  We talked about it a little in practice, because the fact that some kind of opening had occurred was fully evident to everyone in the group.

As a purely physical matter, opening my thoracic spine is good.  I have degeneration in my cervical and lumbar spine.  Those parts of my spine are very mobile, almost unusually so, whereas my thoracic spine is quite tight.  This imbalance can cause pain and muscle tension, though through therapeutic practice of the Anusara principles, I progressively find a healthy balance of stability and freedom.  Go to any decent physical therapist for neck or lumbar pain, and the therapist will work to open the thoracic spine, which although it should be stiffer (being attached to the ribs and protecting the heart), likely needs to be more mobile to be in better balance with the rest of the spine.

This morning, I woke up still feeling more open around the heart space and noticing a shift in the energy in my upper back, neck, and head, and the sensation of the opening I experienced carried itself through my morning meditation.

We never know when we are going to get an opening in our practice.  I keep coming to the mat and the meditation cushion because I want to be more open, more grounded, more free, more full of energy, more compassionate, more at peace, more in tune with others.  It is fairly rare, though, that I experience a noticeable opening all at once (and the reason to practice should not to be to have wild moments, sensations, visions, etc).

When one comes, though, it leaves open the question:  what will I do with it?  Will I get absorbed in talking about it and reliving it?  Will I think that I can slack in my practice because I have had a big opening?  Will I return to how things were before?  It is easy enough to do.  Just witness the collective energy and momentary hopefulness of this country when it elected President Obama.  Upon not getting instant change and relief, the country has returned to blaming, divisiveness, ineffectiveness, finger-pointing, greediness, warlikeness, and catering to the corporate war machine instead of moving towards universal health care, peace, and “green” energy consumption.  It would likewise be easy for me to have enjoyed experiencing something wild and special on my mat and then go outside to walk to work and be tense and grumbly about the ice on the sidewalks, the snow in the forecast, and the limits I experience in my daily life.  I know there will be some going backwards, but I will strive to take this experience to shift to a more optimal place in my practice on and off the mat.

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Thaw Your Muscles and Melt Into Bliss (Web Version of E-Mailing)

Dear Friends,

It was indeed a relief that no more snow accumulated over the weekend and the storm passed to the north.  The sidewalks are starting to clear.  If you look carefully, you can see leaf buds starting to emerge on the trees.  Under the piles of snow, I am sure spring bulbs are starting to push up through the earth.

During this time of shoveling, slippery walking, cold, and confinement, having a mixed practice of warming yoga and restoratives has been an incredible support.

Come join me this weekend for “Serenity Saturday” at Capitol Hill Yoga to thaw your muscles and melt into the blissful lake of the heart.  To register, please visit www.capitolhillyoga.com.

Need class before the weekend?  Join us at William Penn House, Tuesday nights at 6:30pm, with a class that will suit for all levels.

Peace and light,

Elizabeth

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Winter Gardening, Vikalpa Samskara, and Bhavana

My cherished friend Cynthia for who there will be a memorial service on Wednesday often said that her favorite time of year to garden was winter.  She was not only a passionate gardener who had established an exquisite ornamental garden over a period of decades, but also a scintillating intellect.  In winter, of course, she would tend the houseplants and have flowers from forced bulbs, but that was not “winter gardening;” it was just having some beauty in the house. Winter gardening for Cynthia meant sitting in her nice warm house, reading stacks of gardening books and seed and plant catalogs and planning ways to enhance and develop the garden come the new growing season.  Cynthia did not practice yoga or meditation although she asked about yoga and exhibited her habitual, engaged and polite intellectual curiosity about my practice out of friendship.

After I took care of the house plants this morning, I sat down with a gardening book and read it while I had my morning hot drink and thought of Cynthia saying this was the best gardening time.  This time last year, I was marveling that I had chard to eat from the garden and espousing the joy of sprouting indoors in order to have fresh food year round (still sprouting and recommend it to all especially this harsh winter).  This year I cannot even see the containers (see picture below after five days of melting and before another coating to come this afternoon), much less any plants outside, so spring gardening will be a completely different experience than it was last year.  I go back, then, to my books.  I read about edible container gardening for climates where spring starts later than is typical for DC.  I think about what I can start indoors and whether I will want to start with different plants.  In the space of time when I cannot actually garden, I develop my intellectual knowledge so that my garden skills and experience can still develop.  When I am out in the garden this spring, digging in the dirt, watching things grow, I will experience with joy in my very being the subtle and not so subtle differences from a dry, warm winter and a cold, snowy one throughout the whole growing season.

This pulsing relationship among practical experience, study, and joyous understanding is our true practice (sadhana).  Steady practice includes not just actual doing of postures and meditation, but also repeated study for enhanced intellectual understanding of what we are experiencing (vikalpa samskara), and joyous, non-intellectual contemplation with heart and spirit (bhavana) of the burgeoning of combined experience and study.  When we appreciate on the mat and off that there will be times for practical experience, times for study, and times just to rest with a rich fullness of contemplation of the fruits of experience and study for the joyous recognition of beauty and consciousness, then we will never be empty.  We will not suffer from the confinement of a blizzard or an injury because we will know that it is time to shift our focus from being on the mat or on our meditation cushion or out of the garden (or whatever it is that is your work or hobby or course of study) and more to studying what others can teach us in words or demonstration.  We will know that the more we enhance our practice with both practicum and book learning, the more we can move towards an ever refined and steady abiding of whatever is our passion in our hearts.

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Tatah Dvandavah Anabhighatah (and “winners and losers”)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.48, tatah dvandaha anabhighataha is translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as “from then on [after the yogi through steady practice has absorbed him/herself in the practice of yoga), the sadhaka (practitioner) is undisturbed by dualities.”  This sutra follows the only two in all of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that specifically discuss asana, which Patanjali describes as a controlled and perfect ease and steadiness of mind and body.

I was thinking about the freedom from the “pairs of opposites” — pleasure and pain, etc. — when I read an article in the Washington Post yesterday dividing everyone who was impacted by the blizzard as a winner or a loser.   Children off from school were winners, frustrated parents, travelers who were grounded from flying, and politicians sure to be blamed for not having planned in a Southern city to have the snow removal equipment, personnel, and budget of a city like Buffalo, NY, were losers.  I am fairly certain (based on the harangues on the blogs) that the author was not alone in seeing everything as winning or losing.  To me, though, it feels like one of the “afflictions” described by Patanjali.  I was a grounded flyer.  I was much looking forward to a trip to San Francisco to see a dear friend from college and then to attend the weekend workshop with John Friend.  It would have been great fun to be there.  I was disappointed.  But it never would have occurred to me to label myself a loser.  Do so so would just had me hold onto unhappiness.

Yoga teaches us to look for the good, to accept what we cannot change, and to seek to respond in the highest.  In essence, we are changing what we can change, which is how we react.  If my only reaction to the storm was pain and sadness from having the pleasure of my planned trip taken away from me, then I would in fact be a loser.  If I just accept that no one can anticipate when record-breaking winter storms are going to arrive and then have the best day I can under the unavoidable circumstances, then I am a winner.  I am not a winner in a game where someone else is a loser.  I am not a winner in that I did not let Mother Nature win.  Rather, I have learned that the steady practice of yoga makes life more easeful and delightful even in challenges and disappointments.  I am motivated to practice more.  The lessons learned from being confined a blizzard when I was warm, well fed, and surrounded by friends are a hopeful prelude for how the yoga will serve when I really face a challenge.

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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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