Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

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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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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