Tag Archive: Anusara principles of alignment

“In, Back, and Apart”

As I was preparing my week’s classes, I was led to contemplate the off-the-mat import of the words — “in, back, and apart” — used to describe the actions that activate the Anusara alignment principle “inner spiral,” which is also referred to as “expanding spiral.”

The meaning and point of “yoga,” we are told is union. In the Anusara system, inner or expanding spiral is a critical element of the “universal principles of alignment,” which are designed to get us physically and energetically into our optimal blue-print.

How can going in, back, and apart be what would create an expansion that would enable us to better experience our whole selves and all beings as spirit and in unity? Doesn’t that sound entirely backwards?

Going “in” is one of the key aspects of yoga practice. If we only look out, we can get caught up is grasping and longing, which causes great suffering. Although we need also to appreciate the outside, going in, especially by means of meditation. Going in is what enables us to discover our only true freedom, which is the freedom to choose how we react internally to whatever is going on outside of ourselves.

Moving back in yoga is not the same as backing off or away or turning one’s back on things, which would move us away from connection. Rather, when we move our awareness to the back body or open to what is all around us and not just what is forward-looking, we can soften and open to the unknown and to the unseen, allowing the subtle energies to move and guide us to deeper insight as to what connects and unifies.

Moving apart in inner spiral literally is the expansive component of the action. Moving apart is not becoming more separate, but making space (spaciousness) where there was binding, allowing for more freedom to experience all that is possible. It is also about breaking apart from our preconceived notions of being limited and different.

Moving in, back, and apart does not just realign the legs so that we can heal our pelvis and low backs and radically expand our flexibility even as our bodies age (as if that weren’t good enough). Energetically, it can revolve our whole way of connecting to ourselves and the world.

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

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Expanding to Receive the Beauty, Opening to Grace, and the Isha Upanishad

In Anusara yoga, one of the ways the first principle of “opening to grace” can be experienced and practiced  is as a radical expansion of the capacity to receive and appreciate the very wonder of being.  During my visit to India with Professor Douglas Brooks, I found myself repeatedly thinking of the concept of radical expansion and also the preamble to the Isha Upanishad (long a favorite of mine; Shantala on their first CD, Love Window, have done an exquisite rendition), which can be roughly translated as saying that adding fullness to fullness is itself fullness (fullness can also be translated here as perfection).

What I believe this is saying that being itself is infinitely full; thus, we cannot make it more infinite by adding to it.  Human consciousness of the infinitude of being, though, is limited by the filters of space and time.   One of the key reasons to practice yoga (including meditation) is to expand both our capacity to appreciate the fullness and to receive its full wonder by uniting our own consciousness with the infinitude.  When we can appreciate ever more the wonder of our being, we will naturally be more joyous, and I believe, led to be more compassionate and generous with ourselves and others.

Day after day on the India pilgrimage, just when I thought my heart and mind were already full to bursting, there were yet more experiences of the beauty and extraordinariness of life and creativity and nature.  I found myself chanting the Isha Upanishadpurnamadah, purnamidam, puranata purnamudatacyate.  Fullness and fullness is fullness.  “Let me expand still more to appreciate to its utmost yet more beauty,” I thought to myself again and again.  Though I already thought I’d developed a fairly full understanding of the concept through study and practice, I thought, “this is what John Friend means when he is talking about radical expansion.” I look forward to studying and practicing to experience and share ever more beauty.

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108 Sun Salutations and Four Two-Minute Handstands (more or many fewer) and Samskara Revisited

Last night at group practice, after doing a centering focused on using yoga to dissolve samskaras (see yesterday’s blog post on this topic),  I told the group how I had been inspired by a Facebook exchange between Noah Maze and Desiree Rumbaugh — stalwart beacons of inspiration to the Anusara community — about the benefits of doing 108 sun salutations with four two-minute handstands interspersed in the practice.  I then had everyone come to the front of the sticky mat, hands in front of their hearts and began.  For the first five  (surya namaskar A), all I did was call out the poses and the breathing and count, though I almost never teach sun salutations without enough breaths per pose to be able to think about alignment.  For the next few salutations, I started throwing in some variations.  As we continued, I started asking the students to notice their alignment.  Were the places where they are challenged with alignment starting to show up?  (Yes, most definitely so.)

After the 16th salutation, I revealed that we could not possibly fit in 108 salutations into the practice time.  I advised that we will do handstand  at 16 instead of 32.  We then went into handstand, with students having the option of half handstand or full handstand.  I remained quiet for the first 45 seconds and then started calling out the time in 15-second intervals.  For students who needed to come down, I suggested they try to go back up until the two minutes were over, even if it took multiple tries.  The timed handstand generated all sorts of groaning and commentary, but it all had a light-hearted enthusiasm for being invited to a challenge.

After the handstand, we got going again.  “Are your knees hyperextending?” I asked one student for whom that is a tendency.  “Kidneys full?” I asked of another.  “Root your index finger knuckle; shoulders up in chaturanga” was a good reminder for those getting tired.  I threw in more variations to slow things down and to give more time to be careful with the alignment.  There is no point in an elective challenges if it is going to cause injury.

It was becoming progressively more obvious that the more we pushed ourselves, the more the places where our bodies most habitually misaligned were starting to go (just the way our less than optimal emotional tendencies start coming into play when we are faced with upheaval and loss if we do not stay conscious and try to remain in alignment with spirit).  “Are you still opening to grace?” I asked after a few more rounds.  Everyone laughed and found renewed strength to stay in alignment and to keep up the practice.

After several more, with only 15 minutes remaining for the class before allowing time for meditation and savasana (final relaxation), I took the class from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to balasana (child’s pose).  What a rush of relief and ecstasy!  “Just enjoy,” I suggested.  “We need to be able to take the moments of grace, of respite, of sweetness, of pause, and not fritter them away worrying about what just happened or what is to come.  Knowing how to do that is one of the blessings of yoga and one of the ways we can prevent samskaric build up.

We then moved into a cool down.  With the various challenges of embodiment with which this group was working and the time limitations, a full 108 salutations with the corresponding handstands would not have been appropriate for this particular practice.  But everyone left both exhilarated and more relaxed for having mindfully challenged themselves, seeking to stay aligned while not knowing just how much of that daunting number the teacher would ask of them.

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Late Summer Newsletter–Web Version (Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and the Three A’s)

Dear Friends,

After a summer of drought, we just experienced inside the Beltway the power when the earth shudders and shakes in an east coast earthquake of unusual magnitude.  Now, less than a week after the earthquake, I take appropriate precautions and follow with deep caring the unfolding predictions, photos, commentary, and human reaction on a collective and individual level to the impending traverse up the east coast of Hurricane Irene.

Watching the hurricane reports has led me to remember what it was like when Hurricane Isabel was approaching DC in the summer of 2003.  The day before was gloriously sunny and bright–the way we want summer to be and there was no reason yet to cancel classes nor, once suitable precautions and preparations were made at home. to do anything other than enjoy the day to its fullest.  Fewer students than usual came for class; others must have been preparing or attending to other business.  The ones who came said that the impending storm made them want to practice together even more than usual.

Though I rarely lead chants other than the Anusara Invocation in class, I was moved to lead my students in a chant to Kali–fierce goddess of destruction.  Chanting to Kali allowed us to focus our profound respect for the forces of nature and the dance of the universe throughout the whole of the practice.  Our ability to express our awe and our yearning to flow with the currents and eddies of these extraordinary forces instead of feeling powerless or angry was enhanced by sensitive and careful attention to alignment.

Practicing the three A’s of Anusara yoga–attitude, alignment, and action–for me seems to apply profoundly to the way we want to prepare for and experience what comes with events demonstrating extreme forces of nature.  When we challenge ourselves on the mat we both honor our edge and seek to expand it.  We use the alignment principles in every aspect of a pose to express a perfect respect for the amazing concatenation of abilities and limitations that is human embodiment.  For me, taking what I have learned on the mat practicing with the three A’s has helped make it possible to shift how I am able to respond to whatever comes.  There is not much that serves as a better reminder of how much will just come, no matter how much we prepare and study than earthquakes and hurricanes.  We need to appreciate, though, that while we are not in control, we are not without power.  The power is in choosing how to respond, how we are going to put into practice off the mat, as well as on, the principles of attitude, alignment, and action.

I believe to the very core of my being that we must have profound awe and respect for the mystery and power of the dance of the universe (put that how you will) and love for it, too.   We should be expanding and using existing knowledge of how most safely to weather a huricane or other extreme forces (I am choosing not to say “disasters”).  It is important to take care of ourselves to get into the space where we are most likely to be able to have awe triumph over fear, hopelessness, frustration, or anger because plans have been thwarted and, more important, to find the best path possible in the face of serious loss or harm.  Perhaps this is too easy for me to say, knowing that it will be mostly ok for me; my house does well in storms, and we are only on the edge.  I am more concerned for friends and family all up the east coast and especially Long Island and New York.

In class on Saturday, with or just ahead of the first band of rain, we will be chanting to Kali.  Maybe like last time, we will all have power when the lights around us go out, but that was just a happy side effect (or coincidence, depending on how you look at it) and not the purpose.  The purpose of chanting will be to remind ourselves to prepare to the best of our abilities and then let go of outcome and hang on for the ride.

Hope to see you in class soon.  My summer class at Willow Street goes through the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and I will be here.  Registration is open for the fall session at Willow Street.  My Saturday noon class continues, and I will also be leading the ninth annual Thanksgiving Day fundraiser for Oxfam.

The William Penn House class is an ever-deepening weekly adventure.  Come join us.

May all be safe and well.
Peace and light,
Elizabeth

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Should I Be In Alignment or Should I Relax Completely? (and Namah Shivayah)

For the first few years I was teaching, one season a year, I would have as my overall session theme the Anusara invocation (for the words written out, click on “invocation” in the menu bar above).  In so doing, I invited myself and others to contemplate at the heart level the meaning of each word, of why we were making the invocation, of how the invocation might inform not only our practice, but how we bring our practice off the mat and into our daily lives.  Each time I chant the invocation–and it has been hundreds of times now over the years I have been studying, practicing, and teaching Anusara yoga–I seek to invoke into my practice the deepest qualities of the heart that it represents.

Over the winter break, when I was preparing for this session, the invocation called to me.  I decided it was time to make it as a specific offering again.  Last week and this week, including in the restorative workshop offered at Willow Street Yoga last Saturday, I have been exploring namah shivayah from the first line.  Namah–which has the same verbal origins at the English word “name”–means to bow, to honor, to name.  It forms the basis of the greeting namaste–with the light in me, I bow to the light in you.  Sivayah here is our siva nature.  It is variously the light within, auspiciousness, spirit, divine nature, elemental goodness.

When I was practicing in preparation for teaching the week’s classes and the restorative workshop and contemplating (practicing bhavana on) namah shivayah, I thought about a question I often get when I teach restoratives:  “should I be maintaining the alignment principles or should I be relaxing completely?”  When I get the question phrased this way, I look the student straight in the eye and respond, “yes.”  I get a quizzical look; how could the answer be “yes” to an “either or” question?  The answer is “yes” because in each pose, we are seeking to embody the fullest expression of namah shivayah. Taking the time to make sure to be in alignment when setting up for a pose, moving into a pose, reaching the pinnacle of a pose, and then moving out of or dissolving a pose, is out of loving respect for your body and the energy that courses through your body.  We seek to be fully in alignment in all stages of each pose, not only to minimize the likelihood of being in pain or getting or aggravating an injury and to increase the likelihood of healing any existing injuries and expanding our capacity to feel free in our bodies, but also out of a profound respect and honor for the self, the teachings, and the practice.

Sometimes people think that focusing on getting the alignment just right is fussy or rigid and the antithesis of relaxation.  In the case of restoratives especially, everyone coming to the practice wants to be at peace and feel free of effort.  In the hunger to get to a place of relaxation, some hurry into the pose without honoring the alignment.  Oftentimes, it is the hurry to relax and the loss of attention to the details of alignment (of both the mind-body and the props) that leads to pain or discomfort in a pose that is meant to be held for a long time, as are restoratives.  When a student tells me that they are in pain in a particular posture, I invite the student to back off, set up the pose again, and far more often than not, all discomfort disappears, and the student is able to move into a blissful place.  The student then experiences for herself how much the alignment enables the surrender to the exquisite opening to siva and the blissful attributes of siva (satcitananda).

One of the reasons I find restoratives to be such a powerful practice is because they require such focused attention on alignment to enable full relaxation.  As such, they are a great way to understand the need for the perfect and simultaneous balance of effort (tapas) and surrender (ishvara pranadhana).  So the answer is “yes;” the answer is “nama shivayah.”  In everything we do, in every aspect of our practice on and off the mat, we want to be consciously in alignment.  We want to use all the knowledge that has been imparted by our teachers and experienced in our own practice as a way of honoring and naming and helping to enable an unceasing, simultaneous, and full surrender to our own siva nature.

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Using Technique to Express the Virtue We Wish to Embody

I got a ride home from the John Friend workshop in Bryn Athyn with my friend, colleague, and student Jen.  Jen’s husband, who is a dance professor at a local college, and her three-year old daughter came up to Philadelphia and visited friends during the day while we were at the workshop.  For the initial part of the road trip home, we sang several rounds of “if you are happy and you know it clap your feet,” a days of the week song, a counting song that involved a wiggle (or was it a wriggle) and a jump, the alphabet, and I think maybe “loop-de-loop,” and had some snacks, after which Jen’s daughter moved into silence and then sleep.  Before moving into silence ourselves, we spent some time talking about what we had learned and experienced at the workshop.

“Do you have any good sound bites from the weekend?” Jen’s husband asked.  I said I did not have any particular sound bites per se, although there were a few things that would definitely provide inspiration for teaching and blogging.  “I have a good one that I think will make sense to you,” said Jen.  “John said that we can use technique to express the virtue we wish to embody.”  What I liked about the statement is that it put in universal terms that would appeal to a dancer and dance professor, or anyone who understands how technique assists the clarity of artistic expression, an essential element of the yoga philosophy and Anusara principles without requiring prior knowledge of the philosophy or principles.

The statement is an encapsulation of the “three A’s of Anusara” — “attitude, alignment, and action,” which are the essence of practice (also see my previous post on how these principles correspond to the tattvas).  We always seek in every part of our practice and in every pose to open to grace, to soften and receive, to be open to the fullness of life and love, to see and reveal the good.  This is our “attitude.”  The universal principles of alignment are technique.  They are not just technique for the sake of perfecting technique, to discipline ourselves, or to make ourselves or our practice “correct.”  Rather, learning and practicing the alignment principles in an ever deeper and more refined way enable us to express more clearly and elegantly our attitude — in a word, embody the virtue of being open to grace.

The songs we were singing in the beginning of the car ride, with an attitude of delight, also can serve the purpose of helping a child naturally to embody virtue.  Jen’s daughter was having fun with the sing-along toy.  She wasn’t singing because she needed to learn numbers, days of the week, and the alphabet to pass a test or to make sure she was right or to please her parents.  They were cheerful and fun for her.  When she sang along, it was out of delight.  She was, though, learning beginning language and arithmetic skills that will help her communicate and get on better in society.   As she grows older, in the absence of these skills, it would be hard for her to express her joyous spirit in a way that deepens conversation, relationship, and ability to participate fully in the obligations of society.   When we learn technique — in whatever area — we will be furthering our ability to embody virtue if we use the technique to enhance our skills to work for, offer, and express peace, love, nurture, and growth, rather than learning technique for the sake of accomplishment, worthiness of praise or remuneration, or needing to be correct.

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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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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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“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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