Tag Archive: Anusara alignment principles

Beginner’s Mind

The other day I was doing a computer search on contact improv jams in the Bay Area to see if it was possible to fit one in during my upcoming vacation in San Francisco.

The website for one of the jams said for a class that preceded the weekly jam that beginners and advanced practitioners with a beginner’s mind were welcome. I loved that statement.

The idea of beginner’s mind is one that is mentioned often in the yoga world and was taught as an integral part of the principle of “opening to grace” in the Anusara system.

What I think is meant by practicing or bringing to the mat or to the dance a beginner’s mind is approaching each practice, every step, every pose, every aspect of alignment and technique with wonder, openness, and an ever-growing willingness to learn.

When we are new to a practice or a style, discovering our own capacity to express and experience the form is exciting, as is a growing mastery of body and mind in the language of the form.

Being advanced, though, is not just about physical or intellectual prowess. It is about developing a nuanced relationship between ourselves, the practices, and our fellow practitioners. Being freshly open to new insight and learning even from beginners helps us deepen our practice and experience ever greater enjoyment (bhoga).

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.


The Danger in Taking Instructions Out of Context (and Satcitananda)

Those of you who are regular readers may sometimes wonder why this blog, which purports to be about yoga, only on the rarest of occasions goes into any detail about the physical alignment principles for asana.  I just received a comment on a post that I wrote several months ago that reminded me of my conviction that the optimal place to discuss and practice physical alignment principles is in class.  This conviction is not because there isn’t value in reading about the alignment principles–I look at the Anusara Teacher Training Manual on a regular basis–but because it is critical to understand the bigger picture, to have a loving eye on the alignment, and the opportunity to ask questions right away, which we can only get when we practice with a teacher.   In this instance, the commenter said in response to a post in which I had indicated that “thighs out” was shorthand for part of inner spiral that she had heard that “thighs out” in the common Anusara alignment instruction “shins in, thighs out” was just hitting the thighs apart and was something separate from inner spiral.  Would I mind clarifying.

I found the comment timely as I was recently at a workshop where the teacher had noted the injuries that can flow from overdoing an isolated action that is intended to describe one part of an element of the basic principles of alignment (in that case “taking the armpit back.”)  I agreed with the teacher that just jamming the armpits back can stress the shoulder and limit freedom if it is done in isolation and as the first action in a movement involving the shoulder girdle.  It can be an incredibly helpful alignment instruction, though, if the students recognize (as reminded by the teacher) that we don’t take the armbone back without first opening to grace, including softening and expanding and making the “inner body bright” and also practicing the movement in a way that recognizes the point of the instruction is to encourage students to integrate the head of the armbone into the shoulder socket by means of muscular energy.

Like taking the armbone or armpit back, I do not believe that taking the thighs apart should ever be treated as an isolated point of alignment.  It should only be done in proper sequence and in proportionate action to the amount the yogi is able to work the other principles.  “Shins in” should not be done without first opening to grace, including softening, expanding, listening to the body, and establishing a good foundation.  It is also only one of the three aspects of muscular energy.  “Shins in” is just one way a teacher might tell students to apply the principle of hugging to the midline, but the student should not neglect hugging the muscles to the bone or drawing energy from the periphery to the focal point of the pose just because the teacher only cued “shins in, thighs out.”  After all, there are only so many words that can be said in a single class and only so much on which we can focus at a time, but that does not mean we should be neglecting the basics as we seek to become more refined in our practice.  Just as “shins in” is only part of muscular energy, the companion shorthand instruction “thighs out,” emphasizes just one aspect of inner spiral — that which serves to broaden the broaden the pelvic floor by means of the movement of the thigh bones.  That does not mean that it is independent of the other aspects of inner spiral–spiraling inward and expansively from the feet upwards and taking the thighs back, both of which sequentially come before the “apart.”

Wow.  For those of you who read this for the gardening or cooking or to enjoy the photographs, this level of detail might seem mind-numbing.   Part of the danger of getting into the weeds in writing about alignment is just that.  Not only is it distancing, but it gets educated readers into a space of debating the finer points and wondering whether things have been said just right.  It becomes far to easy to lose sight of the point of yoga in the first place, which is to bring us joy on and off the mat.  Remembering the intention to cultivate joy (ananda) when we are practicing actually physically protects us from getting in trouble by over-efforting with regard to one small aspect of alignment.  When we are (sat)  consciously (cit) in the moment with an intention to cultivate bliss, then we are much less likely to do any physical action so hard or so precisely that we forget the big picture and how the principle or the pose fits in with the overall flow and alignment principles and do more harm than good.



“Hugging to the Midline” (and discipline/discipleship)

Last night in group practice a student asked what she could do to keep her standing leg upper thigh/outer groin from cramping in ardha chandra chapasana (sugar cane pose).  I responded that she probably was not using her inner thighs enough; she need to hug more to the midline.  Another student pointed out that it is very challenging to hug to the midline in an asymmetrical pose.

Anyone who studies Anusara yoga has heard the teacher say “hug to the midline.”   The physical instructions most often given to help the student do so, are “shins in” (coupled with “thighs back and apart”) or “isometrically draw your heels/feet together” (or hands in an arm balance or elbows/forearms in pincha mayurasana or sirsasana).  “Hugging to the midline” is one of the three aspects of “muscular energy,” the second of the five “Universal Principles of Alignment” in Anusara yoga.

To help find the midline in an asymmetrical  pose, I invited the students to do a partner exercise in ardha chandrasana (balancing half moon pose).  One student went into the pose.  The other student stood behind the one in the pose and place a hand or forearm underneath the lifted ankle of the student in the pose.  The student in the pose then pressed down energetically into her friend’s support.  The student was then able to find how to do “shins in” with the lifted leg.  What all the students discovered was that by working with far more enthusiasm and power to the midline, it was much easier to open the heart into a deep back bend in the pose.  As it was a backbending practice, we also explored the principle in various one-legged backbends, including eka pada ustrasana (one-legged camel pose) and eka pada urdva danurasana (one -legged wheel pose).  The students who might not otherwise have been able to find these poses, discovered that if they hugged with heartfelt enthusiasm to the midline, they found an ability to do a pose that they might otherwise have thought beyond their reach.

This alignment principle was a perfect way to illustrate the theme of the practice, which was discipline as discipleship to the light (see yesterday’s blog post).  All of the alignment principles in Anusara yoga are designed to get us deeper into our hearts; it is an added benefit that they make us stronger, more flexible, more secure in our bodies, healthier, and more energetic.  Hugging to the midline will definitely help us engage our core muscles, thus giving us more strength and tone.  As an energetic matter, hugging to the midline draws us into the central channel, the sushumna nadi — the place of grace where the kundalini energy rises.

When we are practicing sincerely, we are not just seeking to achieve a pose or get stronger or even to have kundalini experiences.  We do not discipline ourselves for some external goal.  Rather, out of the deepest longing to connect, we engage the principles to align our energetic and physical bodies so that we can be more in the flow and find more capacity to soften and expand our hearts and carry that into our lives, lifestyles, and relationships.  The physical practice can show us how this works, and then, when we are aware, pulses us back to our true desire.  More than the physical act of hugging to the midline makes it easier to do a heart-opener (backbend) and the energetic act of drawing to the midline may stimulate the flow of the kundalini energy, the discipline of drawing in to find the light will help us soften and expand the heart center so that we can reside more deeply there, and thus experience and share more joy, love, and compassion.


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.


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.