Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

Sauca (Another Perspective)

My friend and Willow Street colleague Natalie Miller taught a lovely class on Monday night, using sauca as her theme.  She said that she had recently read a book that described the yamas as things we do to be better persons, but that the niyamas were precepts for our spiritual practice to lead us better on the path.  In that sense, she suggested, sauca is about clarity or purity of intention.

What I love about contemplating and practicing with these concepts is that they are so pregnant with meaning; they have so much to offer wherever we are in our life and on our individual path of spirit exploration.  The more we contemplate and visit and practice and discuss, the more we will discover both about the meaning of the concept and about ourselves.

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Heard on the Elevator (and intention for change)

The elevator I rode to my fifth floor office this morning was very full.  Several of the people in the elevator were wearing visitor badges.  As I walked on, I heard a woman say to a colleague, “…if you get a good one, they can do amazing things.  I had a frozen shoulder, and it was just incredible the change from the physical therapist.  I highly recommend [don’t remember the name].”  Her colleague, who evidently had extremely limited range of motion and a limp from something with his hip, said, “that would be great, but I don’t have time for something like physical therapy.”  They got off (slowly) on a lower floor, leaving me and someone I know who works on my floor.

“He obviously does not want to heal or change if he doesn’t have time for physical therapy for something that is debilitating,” I said.  “He would vehemently deny it, if you told him that,” replied my co-worker.  The reality is that if we want to change or heal or grow, we have to make an intention and then stick with it.  Whether it is healing an injury through therapeutic yoga and/or physical therapy or a more internal shift sought through yoga, we must be steady and committed to our intention.

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Gardening When It’s Not Quite Time (and Sauca)

The first of Patanjali’s niyamas (part of the ethical precepts that are precursors to the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation) is sauca — purity or cleanliness.  The practice of sauca includes in it a literal exhortation to be physically clean.  I think it also carries with it a sense of order, a cleaning out of physical, mental, and emotional clutter, so that we have more clarity.  When we find more clarity, we can be more in the flow with the inexorable sequence of time and space.

Experiencing how we fit into the pulsation of time and space is one of the exquisite joys of gardening.  This time of year, avid gardeners are eager to get int the garden, and it is tempting to get started to soon, to start new things without cleaning out the old.  When we are more experienced (and know better the optimal sequencing of starting the garden with the shifting of the seasons), we also know that we might have gotten a few days in the 50s F, but it is still winter.

Emphasizing the practice of sauca now will serve the whole gardening season.  When it is still cold, but the heart yearns for the garden, is the time to be planning, reorganizing, and cleaning to get ready for the days when it will stay warm enough for growing outside a cold frame or protected area.  As I use a lot of containers, now is the time for me to see what containers need repairs, removal of perennials that did not make it through the winter, and new soil.  It is the time to prune what is better pruned now than in the fall.  This is not just trashing everything, but seeing what should be preserved, what should be repaired, what should be cleaned, and what should be discarded or given away.  It is cleaning out what gets in the way of an optimal flow of energy to experience the greatest effulgence of nature.  By practicing the cleaning and clearing out phase with intention and enthusiasm, I am present with the garden and also in sequence with the light and the temperature.  In this way, just as I am when I practice these principles on the mat, I get the bliss of yoga.

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Yoga for Gardeners (a little more detail and a request for questions)

At the Yoga for Gardeners Workshop, I will be ordering the workshop into (1) yoga to prepare for a session in the garden; (2) yoga pauses to do intermittently while gardening; and (3) yoga post-gardening.  I’m off to enjoy the bright sunny day, to volunteer at The Lantern, and to take care of a neighbor’s cat, but I’m really enjoying getting ready for the workshop.

Feel free to send me question, as a comment to this post, and I will do my best to incorporate what you want to know into the workshop and/or the blog.

Please remember that I will be giving a portion of my profits to support the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum.  Even if you cannot come next Saturday, do please consider supporting one of your local, teaching gardens.

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The Breath Leads the Way (and Atha Yoga Anusasanam)

I was reminded the other day of a principle of reading the great Hindu philosophical work:  all of the meaning of the text can be understood from not only the first sutra, but the first word.  The first sutra of The Yoga Sutrasof Patanjali’s is “atha yoga anusasanam” — now begins an exposition of the practices of yoga.  Implicit in the “atha,” the now, is that something else has come before.  The translations I have speak of previous study and preparation; the studies offered by Patanjali are not for the novice, but for one who has already been practicing.  If we read Patanjali’s first sutra with the implicit understanding that the first word contains all of the exposition to follow and that we do not need the rest of the explanation and practice if we truly understand the first word and sutra, then I think more must be meant here by “atha” than just this exposition now comes after previous study.

In this latest contemplation of mine what the word “atha” must hold within it for the practitioner, I thought about the Anusara axiom of practice “the breath leads the way,”  which has been the alignment focus in my classes for the past week.  What does it mean to have the breath lead the way?  At its highest level, it serves to bring us back to “first principle” of “opening to grace.” (As an aside, I note that I  believe can apply to the Anusara principles of alignment the same method of understanding:  the principle “open to grace,” and even the first word “open” holds all of the other Anusara principles.  All the other principles and axioms are explanations and methods for living “open to grace.”)

When we let the breath lead the way, we start each pose by a deep listening, an openness to something greater, an openness to the pulsation between the universal energies and our individual self.  We invite the subtle energies to support us and lead us like a great dance partner.  We actively surrender to the dance, while still bringing our own skill to our part of the dance, the way the partner being led in a waltz is skilled both in the dance and in being led.  In letting the breath lead the way in our yoga practice, we come to the very fullness of the present moment even as we move through a sequence of asanas in time and space.  Being open to grace in each moment, in each part of the pose, and allowing our self to be led by the pulsation of the breath even as we move with it, brings us to a recognition that in each moment, we are both part of the sequence of time and space and more than time and space (akrama krama).  We come to the  atha of samadhiWe use the practice of letting the breath lead the way to teach us to open to grace, to find the exquisite timeless fullness of being itself in order to illuminate all of our practice.  If we are already in that atha, that now, then we do not need any of the other practices or explanations, but if we cannot find it on our own, then again and again, the study and practice begins now — atha — so that we can experience in our very heart the fullness (purna) of our selves and better illuminate everything we do on and off the mat with the blissfulness of  that fullness.

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March News (website version of e-newsletter)

Dear Friends,

It has been a longer winter than usual for DC, but that will make spring even more special.  This month is filled with opportunities to start to flower along with everything around us, including your own garden.

Tuesday night Wm Penn House classes are always available for all levels on a drop-in basis with special pricing for not-for-profit workers, students, seniors, and those between jobs.  Drop-ins also welcome any time at Willow Street Yoga — level 2 at 8:30 am (great way to start your weekend) and gentle/therapeutics at noon every Saturday.

On Saturday, March 13th, on the eve of Daylight Savings time, come join yogins and gardeners alike at this year’s Yoga for Gardeners. 2:30 PM – 5:00 PM, Willow Street Yoga Center, Takoma Park, $40.00.  Whether this is your first time taking the workshop or a repeat visit for the love of yoga and gardening, get ready to grow, align, cultivate, and rejuvenate mind, body, and spirit with joyous anticipation of spring and the coming gardening season! Suitable for novice and experienced yogis and gardeners alike, this workshop shows ways to align most optimally when digging into the dirt and also provide an opportunity for your true self to blossom. I will bel donating a portion of her profits to benefit the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum, so coming to the workshop will be yet another way to foster gardeners and gardens in the city.  To register, please visit www.willowstreetyoga.com.

The third Saturday of the month wouldn’t be the same without the Serenity Saturday restorative workshop from 3-5 at Capitol Hill Yoga.  This month will be extra special invitation to welcome the light on the Spring Equinox.  For more information and to register, please visit www.capitolhillyoga.com.

Coming in April, along with the usual array, I’ll be teaching one of the special charity classes at Capitol Hill Yoga on Sunday, April 4th, from 3-4:30.  Details to come.

Stay warm, enjoy the new budding of spring, and the last of the snow and winds of winter.  Looking forward to seeing you soon.

Peace and light,

Elizabeth

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Full Moon

The moon had risen in all her glory when I left Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring (from a talk with Dr. Manoj Chalam about archetypes yesterday evening and headed for the metro home.  I thought about how the moon shines fully no matter what is below:  a pristine mountain lake, a construction site, a palace garden, a land devastated by one of the Four Horsemen, or the street in front of my house.  What I think is the goal of most “spiritual” practice is to find a place where, being able to see the light all the time, one can live with uncertainty and challenge and have a greater capacity to serve from one’s unique place.

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What’s Blooming Inside Right Now for Me (is it “forcing” or inviting?)

I’ve been living with blooms from bulbs since just before Christmas.  The amaryllis in the vase is the third bloom from a bulb I bought at the beginning of January; the third stem got too tall, so I put it in a vase, so it would not topple over.  The orchid I have had since it was about half this size and have been tending it by bringing inside and out with the seasons for over a decade.  It has bloomed every February without fail.  The paperwhites were a gift.  I enjoy a little of the scent, but find the usual presentation of several flowers simultaneously overwhelming.  I have brought them to flower one at a time.  As soon as the bulb flowers (and inevitably needs to be propped up somehow), I have cut the flowers to put in a vase and started the next bulb.  By the time the flowers in the vase have faded, the next bulb is budding.

The cherry blossoms — this is why I dreamed of cherries blossoming; I had them in my bedroom.  In a previous post, I showed the nearly bare branches from a tree that had fallen in the blizzard.  Although gardeners would call bringing the branches inside “forcing,” I wonder whether I really “forced” these blooms.  What I did was take branches that would have gone to a landfill, brought them into an auspicious environment and invited them to bloom.  This seems to me, not unlike using props in yoga:  I might not be able to experience the full opening of a pose myself, but if I properly use props, I can expand what I can experience.  It is not the same as doing it on my own, but it still gives me a different sense of the beauty that can be experienced, just like bringing in branches that otherwise would have fallen or need to be pruned into the house to reveal their glory in advance of the spring blooming outside.

The last photo is of dogwood and cherry that were on the side of the street two days ago (cherry tree down at the Japanese War Memorial); dogwood in a pile on the north side of the street in the 300 or 400 block of D Street, NE.  Start your own blooms, there is more winter in the forecast.  I am fairly certain from my previous experiment that the cherries will start blooming in a couple of weeks, but it remains to be seen whether the dogwood will want to open.


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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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