Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

The Svadharma of the Pinky Toe (and Radical Affirmation)

Svadharma, from sva (self) and dharma (duty) means our personal path, duty, calling, or place.  The principle of svadharma is a significant teaching in various yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, especially emphasizing the importance in acting in accordance with one’s caste (for example, Arjuna needing to act in accordance with his dharma as a warrior) or one’s sex (consider Sita’s role in the Ramayana).

Extrapolating this teaching and taking it onto the mat, during one of the practice sessions the previous week at the Certified Teachers’ Gathering, John Friend said that “every part of the the body has its own svadharma to increase the pranic flow.”  He then said that if you just took a photo of the feet of an Anusara yoga practitioner in any pose, you should be able to see that the whole body was fully engaged and active.  John Friend’s teaching here was not just using the yoga philosophy as a catalyst to better understand the body.  By using the principle to illuminate the practice, the practice reflectively illuminated the principle itself, without denying or denigrating its original context or getting bogged down in its historical baggage of perpetuating the caste system and demarcated, subservient roles for women.

Thinking about the svadharma of the pinky toe has no such baggage.  The pinky toes are homely looking things, they do not fit well into most women’s shoes, they rather painfully bump into things, and they are hard to move independently.  They are not essential for living and do not have the emotional charge of the heart and brain, the exquisite connection to the world of the sense organs, or the connection to life itself of the lungs.  Despite this, the call to lift and spread the toes, to draw the pinky toe toward the heel, or the hip happens just about every time I go to the mat in my practice or teach a class.  Activating the pinky toe by opening it and spreading it apart from the other toes is a conscious act of opening that helps hug the shins to the midline.  In hugging the shins in by means of activating the pinky toe, the yogi on the mat can then safely move the thighs back and apart, creating an expansion of the pelvic floor that provides room for more strongly tucking under the tailbone to access core power.  The pinky toe thus is an important part of our practice, even if we could manage to get by without it.

But the svadharma of the pinky toe on the mat is not just to be able to help us access the movement of “shins in” so that we can better do “thighs out,” although that is an important physical part of its essence.  The toe does not move on its own.  We have to start by bringing our awareness and consciousness to the toe.  Part of the pinky toe’s svadharma, then, is to invite the infusion of consciousness to show how full participation of even an apparently insignificant part of the body can lead us to a better understanding and personal experience of the pulsation between reaching out and hugging in and affirming ourselves.   By intentionally bringing our awareness to the power we can unleash in the pose by the movement of the pinky toe, we bring the opportunity for greater strength, expansion, and flow of energies.  This is why, I think, John Friend suggested that by just seeing the toes we should be able to know the engagement of the whole body and mind in a particular pose.

As a practical and therapeutic matter, recognizing and bringing into play the svadharma of each and every part of the body serves to help us increase the flow of energy and expand our range of movement.  In addition, activating the parts of the body that are inclined to slack (for example, the pinky toe or the adductor and abdominal muscles) will bring ease to the muscles that tend to overwork to compensate, such as the neck and low back muscles.  We are not just stronger and more flexible when every part of the body does fulfills its svadharma, but we eliminate much pain and suffering.  (More to come on this particular concept in other posts.)

Off the mat, when all parts of the whole are fully conscious of and know their svadharma, the whole will itself have more consciousness, more light, and better experience the bliss of being.  It is easy to see, without judgment or question, that the pinky toe cannot do the work of the heart, although when the pinky toe is working it can help contribute to an integration of mind and body that will further the opening of the heart and thus the whole person.  Finding our svadharma as a whole person within society does not have to be about conforming to preconceived social norms that no longer serve.  The better we are able to understand where we are in time, space, and the interconnected web of being, though, the more fully we can participate in leading society itself to a more conscious and light-filled place, just as bringing our conscious awareness to the actions of the pinky toe can do the same for us as individual yogis on the mat.  When we recognize and live out our true svadharma as such, we radically affirm ourselves, the community, and the very essence of all being.

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Track Work on the Red Line

I am writing this post as I sit on the Metro platform at Takoma, waiting for a train back to Union Station. There were already dozens of people waiting when I got here. I have been here for ten minutes or so, and there is no time posted on the board yet for the next train.

Some people are talking on their phones or socializing with each other. Some are pacing back and forth. Some look resigned. Some are going into tirades about the problems with Metro. Some are reading and have made themselves more or less at home where they are.

I sit cross-legged, basking in the sun, blogging for now, and if time permits also in my journal. I could be angry or impatient or annoyed, but it would not get me home any sooner. So I just find enjoyment of the waiting time with the materials at hand.

Although there are circumstances where physical pain or suffering cannot be avoided, yoga can help us find a greater sense of equanimity when we are challenged. As John Friend reminded us this week in a different context, “in a large part, it will be seen that the suffering is optional.”

I now approach Union Station. Perhaps when I get home I will supplement this post with appropriate citations to Patanjali. Or maybe I will play with the cats and pick some grrens from the garden for dinner.

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Blogging by Blackberry (after thoughts on discipline and freedom)

When I pause to think about it–something I try to do consistently with the fruits of technology–it is an extraordinary marvel that I can be telling stories to the world from a little device I am holding in my hand, one that also has let me speak and exchange notes while I am away from home with friends, colleagues, and business connections.

What I cannot do (more likely because I haven’t yet learned how than it is not possible) is to be my usual careful self when posting entries. I have not done hyperlinks to attrbute my sources, nor have I spell-checked. At home, I would not hit the “publish” button without doing those things.

Under the circumstances of being away from my regular computer, my library, the ability to check my references, and to provide proper citation, but being brimful with enthusiasm for being with my teachers, colleagues, friends, and the practices while I am at the teachers’ gathering, it seems better to post than not, using the means at hand. I sacrifice some of my usual discipline to share the joy.

All of life is like that. We may have ideals of what is proper, what are our standards for appearance, for work, for sharing a meal or our homes. When circumstances limit our ability to meet our own standards, it is part of the yoga to see whether the standards are binding us or serving to help us better connect. I believe that we should always strive to be more precise, more technically accomplished, better able to convey a sense of grace and beauty. But that effort should not cut us off, bring us to a halt, disempower us, prevent accomplishment of things. Most of all, it should not deaden a sense of spontaneity of gesture–the part of art and relationship that reveals our true spark.

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Intention, Discipline, and Freedom

One of the primary themes at the Anusara certified teachers’ gathering this week with John Friend has been how discipline and technique serve our yoga. In keeping with the elemental Anusara principles of “attitude, alignment, and action” (iccha, jnana, kriya), the point has not been to emphasize rules for the sake of rules, form over substance, or technique for its own sake. Mastering technique, by itself, will not bring us to the ultimate intentions of yoga: living liberated (jivamukti), experiencing the very wonder, bliss, and dance of being.

But just playing or seeking freedom for its own sake, while we are embodied in human form, will not likely lead us to the most expansive and steady experience of ultimate freedom (svatantra). It is discipline and technique with the constant remembrance of the reaon for being disciplined about how we practice and live that will take us further on the path.

It can be nice, for example to go to a class where there is little emphasis on form, and the call is just to flow and feel. For me, though, because of my physical limitations (degeneration in my spine, old groin injury, etc–these do not define my being; they just inform how I practice), I feel far freer and more able to expand how much I can play the more attention I give to the physical alignment. In such a situation, the rigorous attention to detail is not for the sake of an external idea of what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it is the constant disciplined attention to alignment that frees me to play as free from injury, pain, and fear of injury as is possible in my body.

The discipline then becomes a way of self-affirmation. It is the limitations that lead me to have to focus more on technique than if I did not have the limitations. That attention then provides a ground for a more expansive practice and a deeper appreciation for the beauty of what the practice can offer.

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Windows That Open

When I first got to my room on the fourth floor of the hotel, the airconditioner was straining noisily, and the room was very stuffy. To My great delight — the windows not only open, but have screen and look out onto an unveveloped tract of land with trees higher than my window. I immediately opened the windows and let in the smell of fresh air and the sounds of the forest. There is occasional car noise, but it is muffled by the sounds of wind and rain in the trees.

I thought this morning how often I end up in an office building or hotel where the windows do not open. That cutting off access to the realities of nature, of what is greater than our little world, in order to have a controlled climate seems like much of modern life.

Many I know do not even notice that the windows do not open. Others of us, see the windows and want to know what is outside and to be with the greater energies. We seek to oprn the windows and know. Those who are able and so moved and who are able — rare beings — leave behind the buildings and go entirely on the renunciate path. The rest of us who live the life of householders, seek to have windows that open and spend time each day breathing in the sweetness of what is greater.

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on the train

I am on Amtrak heading to the Anusara teachers’ gathering in
Morrisville, NC. The train is surprisingly crowded and not surprisingly a whole different vibe than the train to NY.

By day we will be practing and gathering in a hall at a Hindu temple. The grounds are reported to be beautiful and welcoming. By night, those of us who don’t have local friends will be staying at hotels off the highway with cable TV that usually serve the visitors to the big university ball games and events. We’ll then all be driving back and forth to the venue and out to eat.

I find it of mild interest that I spend more time in cars and more time in a place with TV when I travel to study yoga than at any other time during the year.

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Twisting, Opening to a New Perspective (and radical affirmation)

This week I have been working on twists both in my own practice and in my classes. In so doing, I have been thinking about the difference between turning around or doing an about-face and staying steady and true to oneself, while truly being open to another perspective.

In order to get into twisted and bound asanas, it is critical to be steady in your place and to use the three self-affirming elements of muscular energy — hugging into the midline, embracing the muscles to the bone, and drawing from the periphery into the focal point — to be able to revolve on the midline and open the heart to a new direction.

The same is true off the mat. If we just flip our position or turn an about-face, we are not grounded or reliable. Inside the beltway, for example, I’ve heard people saying they think McCain and Specter should be voted out of office because it is not clear where they stand. Their positions seem more about expediency than about a steadiness of conviction, coupled with an openness to listen to and work with others with differing views.

Ideally, we want to embrace ourselves, our history, and our nature, and be sufficiently comfortable and secure with ourselves that we can hear others. Even if it feels convoluted or binding to open to true listening, by reaching while staying steady, we can better have compassion and recognize the light and humanity in those with whom we disagree. By doing so, ultimately, just as we create greater strength and flexibility by practicing twists, we experience a greater openness of spirit with respect to ourselves and all around us.

This is a big part of my current practice, and perhaps one of the very hardest.   Steadfast commitment to a balance of steadiness and openness makes possible, I think and hope at this point in my practice, radical affirmation of the good in everything.

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I hate [insert name of pose or class of poses] (and the kleshas)

One of the aims of yoga, according to Patanjali’s classic eight-limbed path of yoga, is to be free from being torn between the pairs of opposites — pleasure and pain.  We cannot be free if we are always grasping at pleasure or acting to avoid pain.  From a tantric perspective, we are not trying to disengage or transcend body and mind and the natural arising of pleasure and pain, but we still want to be engaged without an attachment or aversion that leads us into entanglement and suffering rather than towards openness and light.

One of the kleshas (afflictions) is dvesa, which can be translated as hate, dislike, abhorrence, enmity, avoidance.  Why wouldn’t we want just to avoid something that we dislike?  Sometimes we have no choice, and one of the benefits of yoga is helping us make peace with having to face or be engaged with things that are painful or distasteful.

I often hear students say, “I hate [insert name of pose].”  Last night, I heard it twice.  I am no stranger to the “I have to go to the bathroom poses,” the poses which are so challenging or uncomfortable, that I feel the need to leave the room. One of the most profound ways I have grown with yoga, though, is staying present for the poses that did not initially appeal to me, usually those that pushed my fear, trust, strength, anxiety, worthiness buttons.  One of the obvious superficial benefits of staying present and practicing the “I hate” poses is that they can yield an extra sense of accomplishment when we get them.  We can also learn more about our friends and colleagues by starting to understand why the poses are the ones that naturally draw them and thus expand our perspective on the fullness of life.

For example, arm balances are still most challenging for me, partly because I am more flexible than I am strong, and partly because I am fearful of falling.  I’ve started to appreciate how another person could be drawn to them for the exhilaration, the rush of danger, the excitement, the challenge, the very topsy-turvyness of the poses, although those aren’t sensations to which I am naturally drawn.  But I have learned how much practicing arm balances fuels the energy in my core and heart and when I get them, what it must feel like to fly.

The teacher’s duty (and I have been blessed with wonderful teachers who have given me this gift) is to offer the full range of experiences (within the parameters of the class level, style of yoga, and class description), so that every student gets to practice both favorites and least favorites.  This is not so much to make sure that every student gets a favorite sometimes and so is happy in the class when the favorite shows up, but so that the students are invited to be present, grounded, and open to his or her own light through the full range of delights and challenges.   On a day when I just get my favorites, I feel like I have been to the spa.  The real pleasure from yoga has been from the challenging poses over the long term.   It has been steadily coming to the challenge that has started easing my reactions off the mat to the inevitable challenges, pain, and losses of a full and active life.  In being less reactive to challenges, I also find I crave specific pleasures less, and so enjoy the pleasures that come all the more.

Yoga home practice challenge: pick one pose for which the phrase, “I hate…” usually proceeds it and make it an element of your weekly home practice for a month.  Witness your reactions on and off the mat.  Enjoy what happens next time the pose comes up in a class.  Maybe the phrase “I hate” will stop arising as soon as you hear the teacher name the pose.

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Forgetting to Take a Break (and a reminder of the importance of practice)

I got caught up in something in the middle of the day today.  By the time I could reasonably take a break (I did eat my lunch from home), it was too late to be able to get a real break.  I then worked fairly late.  By the end of the day, I really noticed the difference between a day when I have taken a walk, met a friend, sat at the Botanical Garden or the museum for even 15-20 minutes and this day, when I let myself get so tangled in the demands of work that I did not take a break.

I work better in the afternoon when I have taken a break, just as my work, my body, my digestion, my sleep, and my relationships are healthier when I practice consistently.  I no longer need a reminder how important it is both to take a good break each day and to find time for practice.  I am looking at this day, though, as a teaching lesson, an extra reminder of the importance of finding some delicious time to bring into the rest of the day.

Do you take a break to eat quietly or take a walk in the middle of your day?  Can you notice the difference the days you do and the days you don’t?  What about the weeks you practice and the weeks you do not?  Does this not fire you up with resolve to be steadier in your practice and kinder to yourself?

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Stand Steady in the Light (Workshop at Willow Street this Saturday)

One of the most wonderful ways we can find our own steadiness using asana practice is the joy of standing balancing poses.  Even when our feet are not steady, a gentle turning of our mind to a focused, steady place will bring us a sense of calm and ease.

Please join me this Saturday for:

Standing Steady in the Light: A Standing Balance Workshop, Sat May 8, 2:30-5pm, Willow Street Yoga Center, Takoma Park, $35.  Find a place of deeper steadiness and balance in your own light and worthiness.  Learn how to use the Anusara principles to enhance your ability to stand or your own two feet or on just one foot at a time.  After we playfully explore a progressively expansive array of standing poses, we’ll finish with a few upside-down restorative postures to let our legs and feet feel the bright light created by the practice.  Whether you find standing poses a challenge or revel in the dance, this workshop will illuminate your practice.  Everybody welcome.  To register, please visit www.willowstreetyoga.com.

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