Tag Archive: Anusara principles of alignment

Sunchokes (and Anusara “first principle”) (a bit out of date, but not really)

I realize that this blog entry was in my drafts page; I never hit the publish button.  As I ponder the few intervening weeks of snow (in some ways it feels as if time just stopped, except for the work that piled up and the lengthening of the light of day), I treat this as a reminder to myself to come back to “first principle” to respond with the most light — even in this unusually harsh winter:

On my way to Friends Meeting yesterday, I stopped at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market yesterday to buy whatever was fresh.  When I got in line with a daikon radish, a bunch of turnips, and a couple of leeks, I noticed the way the woman in front of me in line was holding her selection:  sunchokes.  Her hands were held as if she had just received prasad — the offering sometimes made after a puja so that the fruits of worship may actually be tasted and injested, incorporated with our senses and our whole bodies into our being.  “Your hands and those sunchokes are so beautiful,” I said, “may I take a picture and use it for my blog?”  “Sure,” she replied, “and shifted her hands a little so that it would be easier for me to frame the picture.”  We talked while we waited in line about potential ways to cook sunchokes and how happy we were that the farmers (these particular farmers’ must be incredibly good at working with cold frames) were out all year.

Seeing this offering of the earth itself, the farmers who tended the earth and grew the vegetables, the workers who made and repaired the vehicles that enabled the food to be brought into the city, the city and neighborhood for allowing the market to block off a street, the shoppers for supporting it, brought me back to my contemplations this week of what “first principle” means to me.  I mentioned in an earlier post that my focus for winter classes would be Anusara sequencing principles.  No matter what else we are doing or focusing on, it always starts with “first principle.”  The “first principle” is what we call in Anusara “opening to grace.”  For me, a large part of “opening to grace” is a recognition that all the nourishment we receive is a gift.  When we practice such a recognition, then we practice receptivity, openness, gratitude, courtesy, respect, delicacy, and reciprocal desire to serve and make offering.  How could one mindfully receive nourishment such as this fresh, beautiful food on a bitterly cold winter day, and not want to celebrate it by giving thanks, nurturing the earth, supporting the farmers and the market, learning how to prepare it as tasty and healthful as possible, and share it and other things with those around us?

gift

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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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“First principle” (and akrama and krama)

When I think about the Anusara alignment principles in the context of the tattvas (see earlier posts), I think about “opening to grace” appearing in two places on the tier.  As “first principle” it is the first among a larger sequence about how we come to the mat, rather than just the first of the physical principles.  “First principle” not only starts the practice and the dialogue, but is already there. It is, in this sense, so fundamental that it is not part of the sequence, but is sequenceless (akrama).  If you are fully conscious of “grace” and can embody it in all aspects of your physical, energetic, and mental day to day existence without further instruction, study, or practice, then there is no need for other practice or instruction (this I think is a very rare being, and certainly I’m not such a being).

The next set of tattvassuddha vidya, ishvara, saddha shiva, and shiva-shakti (see link above), correspond to the Anusara alignment principles of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which although they are themselves described in sequence, are fundamentally sequenceless as they happen all at the same time and are more elemental than the practice of the physical/energetic alignment principles in sequenced practice.

In this way of understanding the play between the sequenceless and sequenced, we have a universal “first principle” that embodies the purpose of all we do on and off the mat.  It is followed by how we want to practice, described in a way that becomes less of just a concept (which as a universal concept is akrama) and more of a practical understanding (which applies when we are in space and time and therefore in the krama of embodied existence).  As we dance in this play between the sequenceless and the sequenced, we come to practice (or to do any activity) with the “attitude” of wanting to live the “first principle,” to know and experience what is fully present and not bound by time and space.  We then (because we must) study and practice specific “alignment” to try and express this attitude with our “actions.”

The physical/energetic alignment principles then come in as a the way of better refining, studying, and practicing the desire to recognize with mind and body the “first principle.”  The sequence of “open to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral, organic energy” comes then at the level of physical and mental practice to return us back to “first principle.”  “Open to grace” is first in this sequence, too, but as “first principle,” for me, it is something more than the first of the alignment principles.  “First principle” is not just the start of how we practice when we practice Anusara yoga, but the whole reason for practice.  It is the universal, overarching, blissful element of being that draws us to the practice because of our yearning to know it.

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The Exquisiteness of Order (Winter Theme)

By order, I mean how things are arranged in space or time.  Even chaos theory presumes order in that sense.  On and off the mat, there is a certain order to things that is optimal.  We do not plant seeds and then till the soil.  Or think of the difference between peeling and chopping vegetables and then cooking them or cooking them and then peeling and chopping them.  One or the other is not necessarily wrong if you do not have a specific dish in mind, but which you choose will dictate the results. Once you have gotten started in the sequence, though, the path shifts and is partly set.  To reach an exquisite rather than a disgusting result, the next steps are ordered by the initial choice.

If only one musician is playing a single note, then there is no possibility of discordance.  Add more musicians and more notes and who plays what notes when can mean cacophony, a catchy tune, or an extraordinary and ecstatic work of art.  None of us are alone and none of us are playing just a single note, so in the great fabric of our being, it is best to understand how to make music.

Sequencing on the mat is more subtle than what poses should be done in what order in a particular practice to emphasize backbends v. forward bends and twists to be able to do the strongest poses with the least possibility of injury, as important as that is.  The order in which we apply the Anusara principles not only aligns the physical body, but brings symmetry to the physical and energetic bodies, helping us to feel more in harmony in everything we do on and off the mat.  I am, in this, a decent musician and not Bach, but the more I pay attention to the optimal sequence of things (keeping in mind that over most things we have no control as to when, whether, and how they happen) and the more I learn and appreciate the exquisiteness of order, the more I feel, understand, and experience the subtleties and joys of harmony.

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Using Your Head to Connect (and skull loop)

I think one of the most wonderful things about the Anusara principle of skull loop is that it uses the head to bring mind into connection with the body.  Far too often, staying in our heads or using our mind can disconnect us from the body.  Skillful practice of “skull loop” reminds us that the head is part of the physical body. Skull loop, like all the loops, is a refinement that typically would not be the focus of alignment after not only the major principles (open to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral, organic energy) are set in the pose.  It is also the refinement that generally would be done last in most poses because of its distance from the foundation of the pose.

I rarely work skull loop as a focus without also concentrating on shoulder loop and the relationship between the two.  Both start in the upper palate.  While shoulder loop acts to integrate us and draw us in by hugging the shoulder blades onto the back of the heart as a refinement of muscular energy, skull loop helps us to reach out and serves as a refinement of organic energy — inviting us to extend more fully out of the crown of the head.

Even though skull loop helps remind us how much organic energy — a reaching out with offering that goes all the way from the focal point (more on that another day) out through the periphery, including the head — can empower us, skull loop also has a sweet and subtle reminder to come back to the first principle.  Skull loop starts in the upper palate and goes up the back of the skull to the crown of the head.  That initial action is what helps with organic energy, and when done powerfully, it can really give a lot more strength and lift to a pose.  The second part of the loop softens the forehead and lower eyelids, bringing our inner gaze (drishti) back to the heart.  Skull loop thus shows us both that the head is physically an powerful and important part of the movement of the body and that no action of the head is complete unless it brings us back to the heart and the ultimate purpose of our actions and offerings.

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Thanksgiving Week Sequencing Gift (and Kidney Loop)

My students this fall and those of you following the blog know that I have been teaching the basic Anusara physical principles of alignment in sequence as the focus of my weekly classes.  I did not set out to do so at the beginning of the session, nor did I pick it just for this week, but it just so happens that using my session theme and sequence brings us to “kidney loop” for the Thanksgiving week.

John Friend’s  Anusara Teacher Training Manual explains that kidney loop  starts in the core of the abdomen, just below the navel.  It flows up the back body to fill and open the kidney area to the bottom of the shoulder blades, moves forward through the top of the diaphragm (heart focal point) to the base of the sternum, and then down the solar plexus to just below the navel.  The act of opening the back body at our core before engaging the front body helps enhance and refine the physical aspects of the fundamental Anusara alignment principle of “opening to grace.”  By opening the back body, we open to the unknown, to that which is greater than ourselves, to untapped sources of power.  Opening in this way, draws in and strengthens the front body and helps us find our own inner power.

Among other things for me to give thanks is the very beauty of this magical sequencing moment:  What better way to celebrate and honor the tradition of Thanksgiving than by recognizing that we are not fully in charge, by opening in such a way that we are not hardening, demanding, or constricting ourselves, but rather are seeking an opening of the spirit that can bring us to a place of recognition and empowerment.

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Pelvic Loop (and self-affirmation)

I contemplated long and hard about how to teach the Anusara principle of pelvic loop.  If students are already tending to bring the tops of the thighs forward, without doing enough inner spiral enhanced by thigh loop (which together take the tops of the thighs back and apart and brings curve to the lumbar spine), it would not be helpful to invite them to engage in an action, which if done as a primary movement, will tend to take the curve out of the lower back and bring the tops of the thighs forward, making movement even more limited.

Even if we have the tendency to tuck the buttocks and tailbone too much, we are not necessarily engaging out core, and pelvic loop, when done in proper sequence, really helps us to affirm and find our own strength — and no one should miss out on the opportunity to do that.  So crucial to thinking about pelvic loop (especially being myself a reformed  “tucker”) are the following:

1.  The loops are bilateral and can move separately.  This means it is not just bringing the whole of the pelvis forward by a single, central big movement of the tailbone, but using the muscles on each side of the pelvis independently to engage pelvic loop.

2. Although ultimately, all of the principles are done at the same time, they are also done sequentially.  A student said last night that doing pelvic loop in a seated position made her feel “lifted up away from the ground.”  Once I said to remember that part of “opening to grace” is settling and getting heavy, and we always do “open to grace” first, she was better able to understand how to refine her seat with pelvic loop.  Instead of lifting her thighs and pelvic bones, she left her bones heavy and drew her muscles in to firm the buttocks, tone the pelvic floor muscles, and lift the belly to support up-rising energy in the spine, which gave her a sense of power and upliftment, even as she kept a feeling of being rooted to the earth.

3.  Last week I wrote and taught about using “thigh loop” to get out of our own way, to choose actively to tip the longest bones in our body into the back plane of our body so that we have more range of movement, freedom, and flexibility in our pelvis and low back.  Only after we have made the physical and energetic shift of thigh loop can we really tap into and affirm our own power.  If we are still jutting forward (literally and metaphysically) then when we try to tap into power, we will just get more in our way.  When we have gotten out of our own way and moved into the back body, then we can better find our power.  We still start in the back body, but we affirm the spaciousness and freedom we have created and are able to find a place of empowerment and soar.  For example, it is my experience that taking the thighs back and apart is a big part of what gets us into arm balances, but firming the buttocks and engaging the pelvic floor and lower belly muscles that keep us up and give us the ability to choose where to go once we get there.

4.  Off the mat, it may be nice to get out of our own way, but then what?  Shedding or moving what is blocking or inhibiting us is not for the purpose of having nothing, but so that we are then able to affirm the worth of our own being and find our own power so that we can be more joyous and more generous.

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Getting Out of My Own Way (and thigh loop)

A couple of years ago, I took a brilliant class with Desiree Rumbaugh in which she used the theme of “getting out of our own way” to lead us to a place to better integrate our shoulders.  As I was practicing with the Anusara principle of “thigh loop” this week, I was reminded of that class.  We’ve all been in the situation where our habitual mindset, physical posture, life style, or emotions get in the way of our finding more freedom and happiness.

When our thigh bones move into the front plane of the body, the forward movement keeps us from opening our hips more fully and from getting into deeper and stronger poses that require our hips to be open (in fact, out of the way).  When we take our thigh bones back, we physically have more freedom, more range of motion and are better able to access the deepest places of power and openness that allow us to soar on the mat.  I’m working on it on the mat as a great reminder to get out of my own way off the mat.

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Calf Loop (and enhancing the integrity of the energy flow)

When I think of the Anusara principle of calf loop, I think of playing with drinking straws as a child.  I’d take the straw out of the glass and bend it back and forth.  The straw would end up with a horizontal crease where it was bent — not quite a break — but the place where it bulged at the bend would prevent the straw from serving the purpose of enabling liquid to be drawn up through it.  When our knees (or our elbows for that matter) are hyper-extended, I think it disrupts the energy flow from the periphery to the core, weakening the pose, and breaking the integrity of the alignment.

As one whose legs started out bowed (though less after over six solid years of working “shins in/thighs out”), my natural tendency is to hyper-extend.  I find that using calf loop, I do not hyper-extend.  Calf loop (also called “shin loop”) has us draw energy from the base of the shin, up the back of the lower leg, and loop it through the top of the shin and then back down the front of the leg.  We wouldn’t ever start a pose thinking about calf loop, but in the flow of a pose, after the major principles are activated, including muscular energy, we can enhance muscular energy and the integrity of the alignment of the knees by focusing on calf loop.  When I practice calf loop, I find that it lifts the calf muscle and draws it more firmly into the top of the shin, and moves the top of the shin forward.  These actions do not bend the knee, but firm the muscles behind the lower leg, including the calf and the popliteus (which is the muscle behind the knee that flexes the knee) to the bone.

What is tricky — especially for those who tend to hyper-extend, is that getting the knee in proper alignment feels like bending the knee.  If we have been out of alignment, changing our stance will feel strange and perhaps “not right” at first.  The sweet subtlety of practice (whether trying to expand our ability to do poses, heal and injury, or live in better alignment overall)  is learning what is true integrity in a pose and what is habit, what will serve and enhance and what does not.

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What is Beauty? (and “Ankle Loop”)

When I was meditating this morning, the last lines of Keats’ ‘Ode on A Grecian Urn’ welled up in my thoughts: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  How odd, I thought, for this to appear, as if out of nowhere.  I have been contemplating this week on what it means to be refined, but not in the way of an aesthete.  Rather, as I have been concentrating on the Anusara alignment principle of “ankle loop,” I have been thinking about how deepening our practice with repeated exploration and study we are able to refine our understanding and the flow of energy within us so that we can be more connected to ourselves and each other.

As I understand the essential structure of the Anusara principles, the “loops” are really tertiary principles.  The primary principles are those of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which are the principles of how we practice.  The secondary principles are the fundamental physical and energetic principles — “opening to grace, muscular energy, inner/expanding spiral, outer/contracting spiral, organic energy.”  The loops serve to refine the secondary principles.  Ankle loop, for example, which starts at the base of the shin bone, travels down the back of the heel and then back up through the arch, energizes the foot, lifts the arch, supports our stance and helps us focus muscular energy.  When we are feeling challenged finding as much muscular energy in our feet and legs as would be optimal for a full expression of the pose, we can use ankle loop to refine our understanding and practice of muscular energy in the legs.  Keeping in mind the primary principles of practice, though, the refinements should also always lead us towards the heart and not just get us into details.  Getting more sophisticated and refined, likewise should not lead us to disdain for that which is unrefined.

Funny, then, that the aesthete’s call to beauty should arise in my meditation while I have been consciously thinking about refinement.  What does it mean to appreciate and study refinements, but still honor and delight in a novice’s full expression of “attitude, alignment, and action” as much as an impeccably aligned and skillful pose that does not reveal a yearning for spirit?  Beauty may be truth, and truth beauty, but what is “beauty?”

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