Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

Worrying (and the kanchukas)

This morning, woken by the purring cat from an anxious dream in which I was not doing enough to make things better (I am not making this up), my first thoughts were of escalating war in Afghanistan and deepening economic crisis at home.  It felt almost strange and abstract to be worrying about these things from my warm comfortable bed.

I think worrying can have a positive place in our lives.  If we just get worried or anxious about things and get trapped in not doing or growing or reaching (both inward and outward) for a sense of connection and spirit, then worrying will cloak or limit us.  If we recognize worries as showing us limitations, then we can use them to grow and change and spur us to action.

After the 25 tattvas describing the physical world and our being and understanding of the world that correspond in both the classical and Kashmir Shaivist systems, are Kashmir Shaivism’s six kanchukas — cloakings or coverings.  The kanchukas are niyati (limitation of place), kaala (limitation of time), raaga ( attachment), vidya (limitation of knowledge), kalaa (limitation of action), maya (illusion of individuality/manifestation).

From a tantric perspective, experiencing ourselves as thinking, individual beings in the manifest world, constrained by time and space, only binds us if we think that is all we are.  If we get completely entangled in these constraints, then our sense of spirit is cloaked, just as if we get stuck in worrying, instead of using worries as a spur to work for change, we become miserable.

I meditate and practice asana, as taught by my teachers, to reveal the restraints of physical being as only part of my being.  Spiritual practice can serve to enable us to experience freedom of heart and mind, to bathe in the bliss of the essence of ourselves that is universal and unconstrained by the limitations of individual manifestation.  The point of these practices not to escape our individual selves or to gratify them (that would still be “cloaked”), but to find the strength and stability to serve better and to work for a world in which all beings have an equal chance to seek the spirit and experience the bliss of connection.

Share

Adjusting to the Time Change (and the gunas)

My first reaction to the switch to Daylight Savings Time this early, I admit, was to protest and whine, but still to force myself into the new schedule.  This is a great example of tamas (the protesting and complaining without doing anything productive) and rajas (the forcing myself into the routine) being out of balance.  This resulted in my feeling both sluggish and edgy at times during the day.

By stepping back and observing that the feeling of being out of balance could be related to the time change, as well as the erratic weather, I was beginning to bring the elements back into balance, allowing rajas in the form of mental discrimination to bring me to a place where I could take action.

Last night I practiced seated forward bends andchandra bhedana (alternate nostril breathing, in breath through the left nostril — the moon side — and breathing out the right nostril).  I went to bed at my regular time and slept sweetly.  This morning, it was still hard to get up in the dark, but before meditating, I practiced kapala bhati (skull shining breath) and surya bhedana (alternate nostril breathing, with the in breath through the right nostril — the sun side — and the out breath through the left nostril) in the morning to bring in light and energy.  I now feel energized and light and ready to face a long work day.

By practicing in this way I used rajas, as will, knowledge, and determination, not to force myself to get through the imbalance, but rather to try and balance my energy.  Tamas predominated at bedtime where it was in balance, and the rajas needed to get out of bed with the alarm led me to my seat for pranayama and meditation without forcing.

Better!

Share

Plugging into the Source (on and off the mat)

John Friend talks of “plugging into the source” when we need more power to serve, to offer, to fulfill our responsibilities, and also to find our own connection to the greater consciousness in asana practice.  I understand this to mean to understand that we are not alone, that when we tap into the strength of community and spirit, we are empowered to do more.

In asana, as in anything else we do, I believe this means moving and acting with integrity and deep integration, rather than just powering through things for the sake of ego or other external goals.  This means softening and opening to a greater purpose before moving or acting (opening to grace).  We then use the other Anusara principles of alignment — especially muscular energy — to integrate muscle and bone into our core, so that we reach from an informed place of strength.

These principles help us stay healthy when we engage physically outside of ourselves, whether it is offering someone else a hand, lifting and carrying, gardening, or doing housework.  When we slow down and steady ourselves with purpose and then plug in by using our own power as leverage, we will not only be healthier ourselves, but will have more to offer.

Plugging into ourselves in this context means not reaching out before stabilizing ourselves, moving from the core not the periphery — not “telescoping” to some goal without staying grounded and steady.   To plug in mentally, we remember our ultimate purpose and stay connected no matter how diverse the issues.  To stay plugged in physically when we are doing physical activities off the mat such as gardening or housework, we start aligned and stay there and then use our own body as leverage, for example, bracing one arm against our side or thigh before using both hands together before moving, pulling, or shifting something.  If we can keep with this practice with whatever we are doing, we are not guaranteed to be free from injury, but we are much more likely to stay healthy and strong.

Share

Prakriti, Purusha, and the Three Gunas

After the five mahabhutas (great elements), the five tanmatras (subtle elements), the five karmendriyas (organs of action), and the five jnanendriyas (organs of cognition or sensing), come the three antahkaranas (internal organs).  The antahkaranas are manas (mind), buddhih (intellect/intuition), and ahamkara (ego, sense of self as an individual).  These 23 tattvas describe the objective world and our place in it as manifest physical beings and as beings who sense and think about our place in the physical world.

The next two tattvas are more in the subjective realm:  purusha (nature) and prakriti.  In the classical system, the 23 described above plus purusha and prakriti are the sum of the tattvas.  In that system, prakriti, is interpreted as “spirit.”  It is not the world spirit or the transcendent spirit, but more our individual spirit.  Nature is divided from spirit and all of the objective world and individual spirit are different from “Atman” or “Brahma” what is real.  In Kashmir Shaivism, there are another 11 tattvas — the six kanchukas (cloakings or coverings) and the five suddha tattvas (pure elements) that describe the relationship between the individualized, diverse, perceptible and perceiving realm, and the purely universal.

Purusha (nature) is a name or way of looking at the 23 earlier described tattvas and prakriti describes the sense we have of there being something more that is unifying and universal among all that is manifest, but still from the perspective of our own individual perception.  When we look at nature (purusha) from a more universal perspective, we look at it from how it behaves generally, how it moves, and what moves it, as we look at the laws of nature of physics.  In yoga, nature is described from the perspective of the three gunastamas, rajas, and sattva.

Tamas is dark, dormant, inert, and heavy. Rajas is fiery, energetic, and impassioned.  Sattva is pure, clear, and light.  From a classical perspective, tamas is a state we need to transcend to connect to spirit, rajas is the motivating energy that helps us move past tamas to a sattvic state.  From the tantric perspective that underlies the Anusara principles, we recognize that tamasic qualities are part of nature and we embrace it where it leads us to a place of balance.  At night, for example, it is better to be still and dark for optimal sleep.  In this latititude, gardens need a period of dormancy in winter to thrive.  When we are sick or exhausted, restorative postures may be more healing and balancing than would be power flow or even meditation.  When tamas is out of balance, though, we are sluggish and slothful.  We can be stuck in our ways — ways that are unhealthy for ourselves or the planet.  We then need to cultivate more rajas.  We use fire and passion to transform, to find new ideas, to shift our behavior, to find discipline.  If our bodies are weak or inflexible, rajas helps us activate our practice to build power.  The rains and warmth of spring make the garden grow.  From this perspective, being light and pure based on particular dietary and behavioral strictures is not necessarily the ideal.  Rather being sattvic is being in optimal balance; it is knowing ourselves well enough to know when darkness, earthiness, and stillness or light, activity, and “spiritual” practices best serve ourselves, other beings, and the earth.  Being sattvic is being clear enough in the multi-faceted relationship between the world around us and our own mind, body, and spirit that our sense of spirit in all things and ourselves is unsullied, and illuminated.

Share

Yoga for Gardeners Workshop — Call for Questions

Next Saturday, March 14th, 2:30-5pm, is the Yoga for Gardeners Workshop at Willow Street Yoga Center’s Takoma Park Studio.  A portion of the proceeds will go to the benefit of the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum.  It will be a most enjoyable way to prepare for the gardening season, especially after having been inspired by this weekend’s incredibly spring-like weather.   Advance registration is appreciated, though not required, and all levels of yogins and gardeners welcome.

You can come just open to what will be offered — I’ve got lots to share — but if you have specific questions about how to use yoga alignment while gardening, how to address various challenges of embodiment in the garden, or even yoga philosophy or other gardening/yoga topics, please feel free to send them to me as a comment to this entry or by separate email.  I may not be able to get to every question right away, but I will try to address common questions in the workshop and here on the blog and am also always available after class to discuss individual questions.

Share

Knowing Your Garden (and svadyaya)

This will be my 20th season in my garden.  I know that my back garden — where I grow my herbs, flowers, and vegetables —  is easily 4-5 weeks earlier than the gardens of my friends’ in Potomac and Silver Spring and the outer suburbs.  It is even almost that much earlier than my front garden.  I have a brilliantly sunny, south-facing, protected back garden with a brick patio that is against an unpainted brick house and a densely shaded, north-facing front garden.  Not only is the back garden sheltered from the wind by the house on one side and the fence on three sides, but the bricks retain enough heat to change the temperature by a a couple of degrees.  I have a special micro-climate.  My climbing rosebush (pictured in the header) is already in leaf.

What does this mean?  While my friends in the suburbs or those with east/west facing houses are starting seedlings for kale and spinach indoors, I can put seeds into outdoor containers in the next week or two without compunction.  The seedlings I would need to start (if I don’t instead choose to purchase them from the organic farmers at the market) are peppers and tomatoes for planting in mid-April.  If I start with strong 8″-12″ plants in mid to late-April (depending on the 15-day forecast), I can have and have had for at least 10 of the past 20 years, cherry tomatoes in May and peppers in early June.  My greens, obviously, bolt earlier.  I’ve figured out that certain varieties of chard do better in these conditions, and that spinach and lettuce do better sheltered by the fence where they get afternoon shade, so that I can have them farther into the season.

This kind of knowing by combining general book and teaching knowledge with personal observation of my little space, is much like the yoga practice of svadyaya (self-knowledge), which is the fourth niyama of Patanjali’s yoga sutras.  Svadyaya is literally study of the self through the scriptures.  Implicit in that is the guidance of a teacher or guru.  Ultimately, though, self-knowledge or awareness must be experiential.  We make the effort to study and we listen to our teacher, but then we practice.  We soften and open to who we (or our garden) truly are — another way of practicing and experiencing the Anusara principle of opening to grace — and then in the context of the teachings, accept who we are.  As gardeners, that means accepting what zone we are in, how much shade, water, space, and sun we have.  As yogins, it means accepting our strengths and our limitations.  We can shift our zone by treating certain plants as indoor/outdoor or as annuals rather than perennials; we can enhance our water flow by storing it in rain barrels, but that is merely expanding the edge rather than making a complete change.  We can expand the edge of our practice, but still need to accept the bodies with which we were born.

Share

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