with Certified Anusara Teachers Zhenja La Rosa and Vanessa Spina
January 31-February 7, 2009
Join Zhenja and Vanessa for a week of bathing in the wonder of yoga in the Caribbean paradise of St. John. We will begin each day with an intense and playful yoga practice, and close the evening with a quiet, meditative practice to guide you to the vastness inside. In the afternoons, take your boxed lunch to the beaches for underwater exploration in St. John's astounding coral reefs, hiking, or any activity that nourishes your soul!
We'll be staying in "eco-tents" (high-tech tent structures with modern conveniences) at the Estate Concordia, a secluded eco-resort on the southeastern part of the island that is powered by the sun. St. John is a place of incredible beauty, and extraordinary beaches. More than half of the island is protected national parkland, so the development has stayed to a minimum. There are 39 unique beaches, each with its own ecosystem, from white sand to rocky bays, from mangroves to salt ponds. You can dive right in with snorkel gear and see every color of fish, and, depending on the beach, turtles rays, octopuses, lobsters, and pretty much everything imaginable (including that which you've not-yet imagined) under the sea.
*includes yoga, room, and all meals; does not include transportation to Concordia Estates in St. John
A nonrefundable deposit of $350 is required to secure your spot. Email email@example.com with questions or to sign up.
Class Schedule at Virayoga
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
Years ago, someone had commented to me that "independence isn't the same thing as non-dependence," and recently it settled in my heart. For as much as we may want to do things and take care of things ourselves, for as much as we prize our independence, if we don't let others do for us sometimes, we end up shutting out the world.
We have to allow ourselves to be held sometimes, to be carried in their embrace. We have to allow ourselves to be indebted to others, in order to be happy.
In the yogic lore, this is a concept known as rna (it's the "r" with a dot under it). It means debt or obligation, but it's the idea that you don't live in the absence of the gifts you're given. When you're given a gift, you're left with a feeling of gratitude, and in a certain sense responsibility. Of course, none of us wants to accumulate debt (certainly not in this economic environment). But if we don't allow ourselves to feel indebted to others by accepting the gifts they have to offer, we isolate ourselves from the world.
In Anusara Yoga, our first principle of Opening to Grace is the opening to receive the gifts that you've been given. In this principle, we open from the inside and then allow ourselves to be held. It's the way in which we allow rna to be our experience. If we don't allow for the rna, the rest of the principles and practice can end up disconnected, isolated, hardened.
Learning to release yourself into alignment is certainly a practice, and one that requires our openness to receive the gifts of those around us, to take on, as it were, that debt, and allow ourselves to be held in their embrace.
- Open to Grace: This first principle really has two actions associated with it. First, there's the opening to receive the gift that's being offered. It may be the gift of your breath, a recognition of the gift of your own life, or something more specific, like the support you've received from someone. Physically, there's an expansion of the inner/energetic body, as torso grows circumferentially and from the sides of the waist all the way up through the sides of the throat and the dome of the palate. The second component of Opening to Grace is a natural release into the embrace of gravity. The outer body (skin, muscles, bones) softens toward the earth. It's a recognition of the debt and allowing yourself to be held, taking the form of your own gratitude.
- Muscle Energy: There are two kinds of Muscle Energy: active, which uses the action of the muscles to create integration; and passive, which uses the release into gravity to create integration. So in a certain sense, the second component of Opening to Grace can create passive Muscle Energy. As we work through the principles in our practice, we have to learn to allow ourselves to be held in the passive embrace of gravity first, and then add active Muscle Energy to that release.
- Organic Energy: Organic Energy also has both passive and active forms, and as with Muscle Energy, the passive form is when the release into gravity is what creates the extension.
- Hands and knees: Place yourself mindfully, and then turn to your breath. The inhales will naturally create an expansion on the inside. The exhales will naturally soften your outer form. When you release with gravity, notice how the heart center (between the bottom tips of the shoulder blades) melts down, and the arm bones integrate more deeply into the shoulder sockets. (If the upper back is stiff and doesn't melt, you probably need to create more space, going back to the opening that allows others in.) This is the softening of the first principle, and it creates passive Muscle Energy. Now add active Muscle Energy, drawing from the fingertips to up through the arms into the pelvis. When you do active M.E. on the support of passive M.E., there's a softness and a sweetness to the hugging of the muscles.
- Downward-Facing Dog: The difference between active and passive M.E. here is significant. With the first principle, as you expand on the inside, the uper body will back out of the pose, with the upper arms rising toward the sky. Keep that expansion, and then soften the place of the heart, in line iwth the bottom tips of the shoulder blades. That's all first principle, but it creates a deeper integration in the shoulder girdle. Once you find that place of being held in the upper back, now engage active Muscle Energy by pressing your fingertips into the floor and drawing the energy up the arms and into the heart. Notice the difference between active and passive integration. Notice, too, what the active integration would feel like if you didn't first create that first softening. We need both. We need to let others in. Once you're integrated, now extend Organically from the heart down through the arms, and out through the spine and legs.
- Surya namaskar: As you move through these poses, pay attention to how much you're holding and how much you're allowing yourself to be held, particularly in caturanga and cobra pose. First create the opening, then the release, and then the active engagement, and see how that opens things up.
- Virabhadrasana 2, trikonasana, parsvakonasana: Working in these side plane poses, bring your focus more to the lower body. When your upper inner body expands, the ouer form can release with gravity, especially in the pelvis and legs, integrating the thigh bones more deeply into the hip sockets. Find this opening and release with the breath first, and then engage more actively. Notice how when you release first, when you allow the rna to settle, the poses become softer, and more integrated. Once you find the release, then add your own effort through active Muscle and Organic Energies.
- Vasistasana: When you come into the general form of the pose, make sure your stance is long enough to allow for a lengthening of the side bodies. Then direct your breath toward that expansion, especially lengthening the underside body from the waistline up through the armpit. When you open in this way, it creates the possibility of a passive release with gravity that slides the armbone more deeply into the shoulder socket, and the shoulder blade more toward the midline. Keeping that, now actively engage the muscles of the arms (and legs), and then extend Organically out from the pelvis through the legs and arms.
- Handstand and Forearm Stand: In inversions, when you soften with gravity, the heart melts toward the floor, which in turn plugs the arm bones more deeply into the shoulder sockets. Once you're upside down, try this, and feel how you can release into a greater alignment. Then again, add your effort to this through active Muscle Energy from the fingertips up to the heart center, and active Organic Energy, from the heart down through arms and back up through the legs.
- Anjaneyasana, Pigeon Pose (with thigh stretches)
- Dhanurasana, Makarasana, Rajakapotasana: With the first principle in all of these poses, the sides of the torso lengthen, and the heart melts with gravity. To me, moving toward rajakapotasana, the most advanced of these backbends, is all about riding the current of the breath in this way, allowing yourself to be held as you go deeper into the pose. It's counter-intuitive, because you'd think that you'd have to push back to get your head to your feet. Instead, you have to soften the heart forward as part of Opening to Grace, creating a passive integration, while you darw the upper arms back through active Muscle Energy.
- Baddha Konasana, Upavista Konasana: In both of these poses, as with most seated forward bends, the thigh bones tend to get pulled up, and the more we activate the muscles of the legs, the more this tendency can get aggravated, if we don't first strat with Opening to Grace. As you set up for these poses, start with your hands on fingertips behind your pelvis, and use your hands to lift your pelvis up off the floor. Create a huge expansion on the inside, lifting up through the sides of the torso, and then without letting the inner body collapse, allow the pelvis to release back down to the floor with gravity. This may take a few breaths. Once the pelvis is back on the floor, you'll feel the hips more open and integrated. Then add your effort to grow the pose.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
I've been struggling to understand the origins of this financial crisis, and for as many times as my sweetie explains it to me, it still seems obscure. But the other day I finally understood, at least, why it's so obscure: the financial system was built on bad maya, the power of concealment (also called illusion, delusion, deception).
My teacher Douglas Brooks always says "you don't experience the world, you experience your experience of the world." That's maya. It's the representational experience of reality, because we can have no direct experience of reality. For many yoga traditions, this is a problem: maya stands between you and the world. From the perspective of the Rajanaka Tantra, this is your empowerment: maya is what allows you to negotiate and navigate your experience. In this way, language is a great example of maya. We use words to gain access to reality (things, thoughts, emotions), but no one would say that they are identical with the thing you're trying to express. They are representations. They point to a reality that is not the same thing as the words you're using.
We are constantly constructing the maya of our own experience. The thing is, we can create maya that is useful and empowering, in that it brings our experience into alignment with reality, or we can create maya that is delusional and disconnected from reality. To my understanding, this is what happened with the financial markets: the maya of the markets was not aligned to reality.
In Anusara Yoga, we use the Universal Principles of Alignment as a kind of maya that gives us access to a deeper reality, a deeper experience of ourselves. And this is the best kind of maya, because the principles are empowering. Quite simply, they work. Sometimes, however, we create ineffective maya around the principles.
I've noticed this in particular with Inner Spiral. This principle takes the thighbones back into the hip sockets and draws the top of the sacrum and lumbar spine in and up, creating a more lordotic curve in the lower back. It's easy to shortcut and just stick the butt out, or just arch the lower back, creating a form that looks like Inner Spiral. But that's a maya, like the one created in the financial system, that will not be empowering over time. The actions of Inner Spiral must be powered by the legs to create alignment; the curve in the low back is a result of this action.
Today we'll use the principles of alignment as an effective maya to open the lower back and create stability around the sacro-iliac joints. In a healhty S.I. joint, the sacrum should be able to slide between the ilia (pelvic bones) in movement. For example, in walking, when one knee lifts in front, the top of the sacrum will tip into the body but the pelvic bone should anchor downward. If the S.I. joint is stuck, you'll feel the hip lift with the leg/sacrum, or you'll feel the sacrum tuck under with the pelvis. Here's the cool thing: to re-align the sacro-iliac joint, all you have to do is "mimic" good alignment, and it will slide right back into place. (See the "walking in place" bullet to learn how to reset your own SI joint.)
Let's go through it:
- Open to Grace: Set up a good foundation, with the feet parallel and the pelvis squared off to the front.
- Muscle Energy: The component of Muscle Energy that hugs the legs and outer hips to the midline is the critical aspect of this principle that stabilizes the sacro-iliac joint.
- Inner Spiral: With Inner Spiral, the top of the sacrum and the lumbar spine draw in to the body and up. Knowing this, when I first started practicing with this principle I substituted arching the lower back for the action of Inner Spiral. This is the kind of maya that is like a house of cards, and it will collapse over time. The action of Inner Sprial must be initiated by the legs in order to be effective. Specifically, it's the inner upper thighs drawing back and widening into the resistance of Muscle Energy that moves the lower back.
- Outer Spiral: For the purposes of aligning the sacro-iliac joints, the important part of Outer Spiral is that it wraps the outer hips back and under without compromising the curve in the lower back established by Inner Spiral. This creates a dynamic alignment around the sacro-iliac joints, with the sacrum moving in and up while the pelvic bones move down.
- Organic Energy: When the pelvis is the focal point (standing, seated, supine poses), the expansion of Organic Energy splits at the bottom of the sacrum. This means that while the pelvic bones (most of which are below the bottom of the sacrum) move down, the sacrum moves up, again creating a dynamic alignment at the sacro-iliac joints.
- Sukhasana: Sitting cross-legged, place your hands on your inner knees. As you engage Muscle Energy in the legs and hug to the midline, your knees will lift up into your hands. Use your hands as resistance to magnify that action. As you do, you'll feel the muscles around the sacrum area tone. This is a crucial action that you'll create throughout practice to help stabilize around the SI joints.
- Tadasana: Start with a block between your upper inner thighs, so that you can feel Muscle Energy to the midline and how the action of Inner Spiral is powered by the legs. Hug into the block, and feel that embrace all the way up through the pelvis, so the muscles around the sacrum tone. Keeping the legs strong, turn the inner thighs back (block back) until the lower back arches and the top of the sacrum draws in and up. Make sure the upper body isn't tipping forward to achieve this (that would be ineffective maya). Keep that action going, and then add Outer Spiral, wrapping the pelvic bones around and down. Note that the sacrum draws up and the pelvic bones go down. This is good alignment.
- Walking in place: This is the best maya I have yet found to re-align the sacro-iliac joints. Standing in tadasana, engage the legs and add Inner Spiral, turning the inner thighs back. Then lift one knee to just above 90 degrees (the side where the SI is out, if you know which one; otherwise, alternate between sides). As the knee bends in toward your chest, it will help you to get more Inner Spiral on that leg. Accentuate that, turning both inner upper thighs in, back and wide, until you feel the top of the sacrum tip in and up into your body. Keeping that, draw the pelvic bones firmly down (this is Outer Spiral, and Organic Energy), using your hand on your hip as needed. Then release the leg. Do this 2-3 times on the side.
- Ardha Utkatasana (Downhill skier): In utkatasana, rest your hands on your thighs, right above the knees. Use your hands to help hug the legs to the midline, without letting the knees knock in. Hold the midline until you feel the muscles around the lower back/sacrum tone. Then add Inner Spiral by turning the legs in and back and wide. (Watch that the knees don't turn in, and watch that it's not the upper back that's opening.) This will create a curve deep in the lower back. Keep that, and then draw the pelvic bones down and under as you lift and extend up out of the belly.
- Parsvakonasana (and other standing poses): I originally learned to get the thighs back in the hip sockets by leaning forward in the chest and sticking the butt out. But this stopped being effective over time. Try this instead: bring your front forearm to the front knee, and use your other hand to feel the engagement of the sacrum/lower back. Notice when you come into the pose, before adding any actions, what the shape of the lower back is. For many of us, it will be flat, espeically if the back thigh is poking forward. Now engage the legs by lifting and spreading the toes, and sweeping the feet energetically toward each other. This will create a muscle tone all the way up the legs and through the pelvis. Now add Inner Spiral. As the inner thighs turn in and back and wide, the chest won't need to push forward. Fell how the action of the legs affects your lower back. When you get Inner Spiral, the top of the sacrum and the lumbar vertebrae will draw up into the body. Then add the Outer Spiral and Organic Energy without losing the curve in the lumbar.
- Parivrtta parsvakonasana (and parivrtta trikonasana, ardha chandrasana and utkatasana): Twists are among the most challenging poses to stabilize the SI joint, because in the effort to deepen the twist, the pelvic bones and sacrum can move at different rates and get knocked out of alignment. Try this pose first from lunge position (with the back heel lifted). Starting in the straight ahead lunge, take your arms to the sides and squeeze the midline, as if giving someone a hug, until you feel a tone in the lower back. That will create an engagement that stabilizes the pelvic bones and sacrum in alignment. As you move into the twist, the foundation of the twist (pevlis/sacrum) should remain stabile (note that the back leg side will tend to drop). Keep the legs strong and hugging in to the midline, and then lift powerfully through the back thigh and widen the inseam of the leg, pelvis and waistline more to the back leg side. Now twist from that place, without letting the pelvis or back leg drop. Once you're deeper in the twist, draw the outer hips back and extend.
- Ardha makarasana: Start on your belly, with the hands placed for cobra pose, and then bend one knee in so that the shin is vertical and the foot flexed. Notice if the pelvis turns to the back leg side when you do, and if so, square it off again so that both hip points are facing straight down toward the floor. Then engage the legs and press the knees into the floor; notice how when the knees go down, the tops of the thighs lift and this will tip the top of the sacrum into the body. Keep that, but now anchor the pelvic bones back and down until you can get the pelvis more flush to the floor. Then use your arms to come up into a cobra pose in the upper body. As you move, keep both knees pressing down firmly, and both hip points facing straight ahead. Then extend organically, rooting the pelvis and legs back as you draw the sacrum and lower belly forward and out of the pelvis. This pose, too, can be good for setting the SI joints back into alignment.
- Ardha bekhasana: Try this thigh stretch with all of the same alignment points as is ardha makarasana. You may find that the knee on the leg you're stretching wants to lift off the floor. If it does, that means that the top of the thigh is pushing forward, flattening the lower back. You want the stretch to be more in the belly of the muscles, not near the groin area, for the safest stretch.
- Supta virasana: This is always a good pose for working on the SI joints, because you can see the alignment in the pelvis very clearly. When you set up in virasana, make sure that the inner thighs are flowing down and that this creates a natural curve in the lower back. You may find that one thigh is more pushed up than the other. If so, manually Inner Spiral the opposite leg to make more room for that thigh to rest back. This will also help level out the pelvis and sacrum for resting back into supta virasana. As you lie back,
- Janu sirsasana: As a twist, this pose can be challenging to find the optimal alignment around the sacrum. Start facing between the legs, rather than twisted over the front leg, and create a strong muscular action to the midline that you feel all the way up through the pelvis. The back leg (bent leg) side will need more Inner Spiral, to get the top of the sacrum to draw in and up as you twist to the front. The front leg side will need more Outer Spiral, rooting the pelvic bones back and into the earth. Together, the sacrum will be held in a dynamic alignment.
- Ardha matsyendrasana: Again, create good alignment for this pose even before going into the twist. To stabilize the sacrum, hug the legs and hips to the midline, using one arm crossed around the front knee to help create that action. Then turn the inner thighs in and down, until the top of the sacrum lifts in and up and the lumbar has its natural curve. Then anchor the pelvic bones down, especially on the front leg side, without flattening the lower back. Keeping all of that, twist from the back side toward the front. The pelvic bones should not move at all (although the front hip will try to draw back, keep it anchored).
- Upavista konasana: In seated forward bends, like upavista konasana, the spine will be in a rounded form but the top of the sacrum still draws in and up. Start in a stage 1 forward bend, with the spine vertical and your hands supporting you behind the hips. Engage the legs toward the midline, and then turn the inner upper thighs in and down and wide, until you feel the lift at the top of the sacrum and lower back. You must be able to keep this lift in the upright position before moving into stage 2, the forward bend. As you bring your hands in front and take the forward bend, keep the upper inner thighs pressing strongly into the floor to create good action in the sacrum even while grounding the pelvic bones down.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I came back from vacation all fired up, with a to-do list a mile long and more than two weeks of stored up creative energy to make it happen. And somehow, within hours of getting home, all of my plans were turned upside-down by a serious bout of food poisoning.
This may be a very mundane example, but as I spent the next few days in bed, it struck home that we have to learn to live with what the world is offering us, even if it's not what you would wish for. We have to create an alignment between our desires and aspirations, and what's really possible for us, in this moment. If the two are out of alignment, we're bound for struggle and frustration. The world will feel like it's against us, when really we are the ones fighting against what the world is offering.
My tendency, as an optimist, is to look for the silver lining when what's coming my way isn't what I want. But I've come to see a different perspective as well: sure, you can always look for and create an opportunity from bad things that happen. But in a certain sense, you still have to learn to live with hurt, and disappointment. Finding that silver lining doesn't make the pain go away.
It's an interesting paradox for a yogi to explore: to be able to hold and release into what the world is offering, while simultaneously seeking to turn even the bad times into opportunities for your own empowered experience.
In the body, I've been holding this paradox in the crucial juncture point of the waistline, where the Pelvic and Kidney Loops originate. Both of them draw the sides of the waistline back, but then the energy flows split. The Pelvic Loop draws the waistline back and down, flowing down the sacrum and forward through the bottom of the sacrum and then lifting the lower belly up. The Kidney Loop takes the waistline back, but then flows upward, lifting the back ribs and kidney area, piercing the heart focal point, and then softening the front ribs down.
Together, these two loops hold a paradox. The Pelvic Loop feels like receiving the offering of the world and turning it toward empowerment. The Kidney Loop feels like receiving the world, and learning to hold it in your embrace, no matter what is being offered.
- Open to Grace: The first opening is to receive the world, the very gift of life, just as it is, just as you are. When you start with this, there will be a natural expansion of the inner body (including into the back waistline) and a natural softening of the outer form.
- Muscle Energy creates a strong steady embrace of all the muscles to the core. It's a radical affirmation of everything.
- Thigh Loop: Even though the focus for this practice will be on the Pelvic and Kidney Loops, you have to build the loops from the foundation up. So it's crucial to get the thigh bones rooted back in the hip sockets before activating the Pelvic Loop.
- Pelvic Loop: Both Pelvic and Kidney Loop start in the core of the body, at a point in line with the middle of the lumbar, below the navel, and they both flow initially to the back plane of the body. I think of moving into the back plane as a kind of receiving, like drawing something into your embrace. Pelvic Loop flows down the lower back, drawing the bottom of the sacrum forward into the body and toning the lower belly so that the energy flows upward from the pubic bone toward the navel. This is the turn toward empowerment, of taking whatever comes your way and making it an opportunity. Except that I find this part tends to be pretty lazy in my own practice. How often do we forget to take the path of empowerment, and end up feeling like the world is happening to us?
- Kidney Loop starts at the same place as the Pelvic Loop, but as it goes back it lifts up the back ribs, then moves through the Heart Focal Point (in line with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and base of the sternum) and softens the front ribs down. In the back body, it feels like you can hold anything in your embrace, even the stuff that's hurtful. And in the front body, there's a sweet release.
- Organic Energy: Hold these principles as a paradox, and then extend fully from the focal point in all directions.
- Tadasana: Stand in tadasana and bring one hand to your lower belly. Feel the energy flow. Does it go down or up? Does it create empowerment, or does it feel subject to the world. Now engage the legs, lining up the tops of the thighs over your knees and ankles. Now add the Pelvic Loop, drawing the waistline back and down, so the bottom of the sacrum moves in to the body. Feel how the energy flow of the low belly lifts from the pubic bone up toward the navel. That's the path of empowerment. (Believe it or not, the energy flow of the lower belly should lift like this in every pose.) Keeping that, draw the waistline back again, but this time turn the energy upward, so the back ribs lift. As the Kidney Loop moves through the heart, allow the front ribs to soften.
- Surya Namaskar: You'll feel the effects of these two loops in all poses in surya namaskar, but I particularly got an opening in cobra pose. Start in a low cobra, with the pelvis anchored to the floor. Create a good alignment in the upper body by lifting the inner body, softening the heart, and drawing the upper arm bones back into the shoulder sockets. Keeping all of that, now add the two focus loops. Sweep the waistline back and then split the energy in the lower back, down through the bottom of the sacrum (yes, the lower belly lifts here too!) and up through the back ribs (and the front ribs will flow down). Then extend the pose on top of this.
- Anjaneyasana/High Lunge: In both of these poses, the pelvis tends to tip forward so that the lower belly distends. Fire up the legs and get the thigh bones rooted back, and then add the energy flows of Pelvic and Kidney Loops. You'll have to work the Pelvic Loop really strongly into the resistance of the Thigh Loop to get the front of the pelvis and the lower belly to lift up off the front thigh (especially in Anjaneyasana). Adding Kidney Loop will create a spaciousness in the lower back that allows for an ecstatic backbend.
- Pigeon pose: Notice if your pelvis is resting on your front thigh, and what direction the energy flows in your lower belly. Draw the knees energetically toward each other to activate Thigh Loop, and keeping that, lift your waistline to the sky. From that initiation point, again split the energy, down and up. Your lower belly should still tone here, creating space in the front hip.
- Uttanasana: In all of the forward bends, it's important to keep the action of the low belly lifting through the Pelvic Loop to avoid overstretching the hamstring attachments and crimping the hip flexors. Come up onto fingertips to allow more space, charge the legs, and press the tops of the thighs (not the knees) back, to straight. Then as you push your fingertips more actively into the floor, lift the waistline, and anchor the bottom or the sacrum to tone the lower belly, while also engaging the Kidney Loop. Keep the space between the tops of your thighs and lower belly as you bow all the way forward into the pose.
- Parsvakonasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana: In all poses (need I say this again?), including all of the standing poses, the lower belly needs to tone. Get the thigh bones back, and then activate these middle loops without the thighs pushing forward. You should be able to see the energy flow in the lower belly moving up. You can also bring one hand to your belly to feel that tone. Because the hamstrings are extended in Trikonasana and Ardha Chandrasana, getting the lower belly to lift is particularly important in protecting the hamstring attachments.
- Vrksasana, Garudasana, Virabhadrasana 3: I love the standing balances for playing with these actions. Start in Vrksasana, where you can use your bent leg foot pressing up against the opposite thigh to create tone on the inner thighs and set the standing thigh back in the hip socket. Then hold that as you ad the Pelvic and Kidney Loops. It's so gratifying (this is the path of empowerment, after all) to see and feel that tone. This will help tremendously to keep space in the hip flexors in Garudasana, and it will also help keep the front hip from cramping in Vira 3.
- Virabhadrasana 1: I always find that the back body shortens in this pose, and activating these two loops creates more support there. Draw both sides of the waistline back (the front leg side will need more Pelvic and Kidney Loops, in general), and then create space in the low back as you split that energy down and up. Together, these loops provide a strong support for the upper back to open.
- Handstand, Pinca Mayurasana: Now that you've felt it in so many right-side-up poses, try going upside-down. Keeping the waistline back, even while you're kicking up, is one of the key places to work if you're trying to learn to balance in these poses (they help to counter the infamous "banana back"). Note that that the energy flow of the lower belly is now downward (toward the floor) even though it still moves from pubic bone toward the navel.
- Sirsasana and variations: Pressing up into headstand with both legs requires moving deeply into the back body, so try working these loops as you press. Once you're balancing comfortably in the pose, try these variations with a focus on the split of energy in the back body that comes from the Pelvic Loop and Kidney Loop: virasana legs, with a twist; bringing one foot down toward the floor in front of you while the other stays vertical; hovering with both legs together as they lower toward the floor.
- Anjaneyasana and Pigeon thigh stretches: We already found that in both of these poses, because the front hip is flexed, the pelvis and low belly can easily rest on the front thigh. But that can jam the front hip. To create space there, you have to start from the back body. Set up the pose, then bend the back knee in for the thigh stretch. Keep drawing the back knee energetically forward on the mat to ignite the Thigh Loop (and those quads). Then use your free hand pressing into the front leg to help you move both sides of the waistline back (as if you could get your waistline to meet your back foot). Keep the waistline full, and then draw down through the bottom of the sacrum so much that you feel the shift toward empowerment in the front, in the lower belly lifting. Keep that, and then also lift the back ribs.
- Ustrasana, Laghu vajrasana, Kapotasana: In all backbends, you want to create space in the lower back so that there's not too much "bend" but rather more extension. In the set up for ustrasana, focus on pressing the thigh bones back, and notice how that creates more lumbar curve. That's a good start, but if you were to backbend over such a deep lumbar curve, your lower back will feel jammed. So keep your thighs back, and then move to the waistline flowing back. Draw the bottom of your sacrum down and forward as powerfully as you can without the thigh bones pushing forward. Then lift up the back ribs for the Kidney Loop, softening this energy down the front ribs. Note that backbends should not jut your rib cage forward. It's too much pushing in the world, and not enough receiving. Also, these two loops create a deep support for the upper back to curl and open into the pose.
- Supta Virasana: The back can easily over-arch in this pose, especially if the hip flexors are tight. So try this: Allow the inner thighs to release down, and then walk back just so you are on your elbows. Press down into your elbows to lift your hips off the floor, to allow more mobility in the lower body. Allow the waistline to release down with gravity, and then create space in the back by splitting the energy toward your knees and toward your head. Then release the pelvis back to the floor and come all the way into the pose.
- Upavista Konasana (and forward bends): Depending on the general openness of your hamstrings, you will either find that your low back tends to round (that would be tight) when you sit for upavista, or that your pelvis sits easily upright (that would be open), with the sitting bones energetically moving back behind you. If your back rounds, focus on getting the thigh bones rooted to the floor and the top of your sacrum drawing in and up (this is all from Inner Spiral) before moving further into the forward bend. If your thigh bones are already rooted and your pelvis is in a neutral position, it's important to work with the Pelvic and Kidney Loops as you do the forward bend to protect the hamstring attachments. One of the best landmarks to know that you've created enough Pelvic Loop is the energy flow in the lower belly -- it should be drawing up. Another key landmark is the relationship between the crest of your hips and your thigh bones: if the hips are resting forward on the thigh bones, draw your waistline back even more (you can use your fingertips pressing into the floor to help create this action), and then find these two loops.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Just a few days ago, I was sitting on the beach with my beloved, and we were dreaming about our lives. (What better thing is there to do on a beach?) It brought us back to a memory of the last time we had sat on a beach dreaming together, and that was about three summers ago. We mapped out our lives then, each of us with our own vision of who we wanted to become and what we wanted to do. We wrote it all down diligently. We got home and set to work on our goals. And we probably forgot what we were working on within six months. The amazing thing is that, three years down the line, when we look back, we find that we have accomplished most of what we had set out to do.
To me, this is a reminder of how powerful a force intention can be in our lives. When we set our hearts to something, it doesn't mean that we're going to get it, but it definitely sets us along a trajectory. I like the Sanskrit word "vrata" for intention or commitment, because it implies taking a turn, pointing yourself in a certain direction. (Vrata is related to such words as vrtti and parivrtta.) The idea is that in making a commitment, you turn (a la Robert Frost) down a particular path, and the path you choose makes all the difference. Not that one is right or the other wrong, but that when you set out in a certain direction, it creates a trajectory. And that trajectory can hold you and carry you, even when you don't remember how you turned onto this path in the first place.
I've been working on creating a stronger vrata in my own body through the action of the shins hugging to the midline. The shins build a pathway in the lower body that helps to line up the knees, hamstrings, and psoas muscles, as well as open space in the hips and the lower back.
- Open to Grace: involves placing yourself and pointing yourself in a certain direction. To create the optimal starting point for the pathways you'll build in the lower body, line up the feet so that they are straight ahead, from the middle of the ankles to to the 2nd toe mound.
- Muscle Energy: Drawing toward the midline is one of the three aspects of Muscle Energy, and to me it most clearly reflects the act of drawing your path, of creating a trajectory for yourself, and thus holds a strong power of intention. In the lower body, a key point of focus for creating that path is hugging the outer shins to the midline. What's interesting is that, hugging the midline itself involves a bit of a circuitous path. The muscles on the outer shins (called the peroneals) are activated by spreading the pinky toe to the side, and that creates an energetic flow from the outer pinky toe back toward the outer heel. The peroneal muscles themselves have a spiraling quality (all of our muscles are formed in spirals) and so when you engage them, the outer shin doesn't just draw to the midline, it also flows back, toward the back plane of the body. Holding the energy of the outer shin to the midline and back can become a marker of how powerful you are holding the vrata of your intention.
- Inner Spiral: The action of the shins creates a trajectory, and Inner Spiral, which takes the inner thighs in, back and wide, opens up the pathways of the lower body. In particular, the widening aspect of Inner Spiral works into the resistance of the outer shins to broaden the hamstrings, track the knees and psoas, and open space in the hips and lower back. What I've found is that we often forget about the vrata created in the outer shins when we start to access Inner Spiral. (Notice when you do Inner Spiral if the heels widen, or if your knees knock in...) The paradox, of course, is that you can't actually do Inner Spiral without the strong, steady resistance of the shins hugging to the midline, because they create the trajectory for the flow of energy in Inner Spiral.
- Outer Spiral: Once the lower body is lined up through these actions, Outer Spiral reinforces the commitment of the legs. As it flows from the waistline down to the outer edges of the feet, Outer Spiral takes the outer seams of the legs (including the outer shins) back and toward the midline. To me it's a reminder that we have to keep renewing our intention, again and again, to make sure we're still on the path we want to be on.
- Organic Energy: From the focal point, extend energy down to the earth and back up through the extremities.
- Modified Utkatasana: Try this pose with your hands on your knees, so you can focus on the alignment of your legs. Make sure the feet are lined up parallel, and that the knees are lined up straight ahead with your feet. Set yourself on the path you want to be on from the very start. Then lift and spread your toes (especially those pinky toes) to get the legs energized and the outer shins to fire. Hug the legs to the midline, and support this action with your hands on your outer upper shins, pressing in to the midline, without letting the knees knock in. Keep that commitment strong as you now turn the inner thighs in and back, moving wide into the strong resistance of the outer shins. You'll probably feel some space open up in the lower back. Now anchor the tailbone down and stretch into the full pose.
- Uttanasana: Here you can really feel how the shins spin energetically to the back plane of the body, rather than just to the midline. With parallel feet in uttanasana, bend both knees (it's easier to track the legs with the knees bent) and lift and spread your toes. Spread the pinky toes to the sides and see how that fires up the outer shin muscles. As you draw the pinky toes wide, notice how the outer edge of your foot energetically draws from the pinky toe mound to the outer heel. This creates a steady action in the foot and lower leg. Now keep that (focus on the energy flow of the outer shins) as you turn the inner thighs back and press them wide into the resistance of the shins. Notice if the heels widening or the knees knocked in as you added the Inner Spiral. If so, reconnect in the actions of the outer foot and outer shin, and keep that vrata strong as you open through the inner thighs. Now stretch the legs all the way straight, without wavering from the pathways you created.
- Runner's Stretch/Parsvottanasana/Trikonasana: In all of these poses, you can use your front forearm pressing up against the outer shin to build a stronger trajectory in the lower leg. Once that is established, to open the hamstrings optimally on the front leg, turn the inner thigh in and back and then widen the back of the leg off to the side. Notice if your foot turned in as you did that. Keep the 2nd toe mound vertical, the kneecap vertical, and the outer shin flowing to the floor even as you widen the underside of the leg. This will help track the hamstrings without over-stretching the attachment, for a good juicy opening.
- Parsvakonasana: Start in the prep form of the pose, with your front forearm on the front thigh. Power up the legs, especially by spreading the pinky toes and drawing to the midline, and then spin the inner thighs in and back and wide. Look at the back leg first. What is the energy flow on the outer shin? Did it turn forward when you added inner spiral, or is it still moving back? Look at your front leg, and notice if the knee knocked in. And then re-set. Keep the energy flow on both shins strong, so the pathway is clear, as you add Inner Spiral, and the opening in the pelvis will be powerful.
- Pigeon (and variations): All of the pigeon variations are great places to work on these actions. I like to even hold underneath the shin on the front leg with one hand, and keeping steady action in the toes, manually lift the shin (that's to the midline) and spin the outer upper shin back (toward the pelvis). The inner thighs will naturally descend and open more easily. Try this in the narrow-angled pigeon, as well as variations with the front shin parallel to the front edge of the mat (including twisting to both sides)
- Standing baby cradle: This pose is nice because you can hold the outer shin with your hands to ensure that the commitment is honored as you go into deeper hip openers. I like to hold under the shin with one hand, and set the inner upper thigh back with the other.
- Eka pada galavasana/Dragonfly: Begin in a prep pose, like utkatasana with one ankle crossed over the opposite knee. Flex the foot and extend evenly through all four corners of the foot (especially the inner foot). Spread the pinky toes wide (in this case, that's toward the floor) to create a steady action in the outer leg. Then manually turn the inner thigh in, back and wide, without letting your foot waver (that's the point of origin for the pathways in your legs and hips, so keep the intention there strong!). Stay in the prep pose, or take it into the arm balance. For dragonfly, twist toward your top foot and wedge your upper arm into the arch, pressing your inner foot strongly into the arm. Then lean to the side to place both hands, stand down through your foot into your arm, and fly.
- Virasana/Supta Virasana: You can often trace knee pain in virasana to its source in the feet, the point of origin for aligning the pathways of the legs. In virasana, the feet should line up with the shin bones (which, you'll note, are not parallel but rather slightly flared to the sides), with all four corners of the feet pointing straight up. Sit on some padding if this alignment is hard to create. Spread your toes (manually, if they need a little extra boost), especially the pinky toes, and then draw energetically from the pinky toe mound up through the outer heels to fire up the outer shins. Use your hands to hold the shins to the midline, and create a firm commitment in the lower body. Then allow the inner thighs to settle and press them wide into the resistance of your hands. That will hep line up the knees and make space in the lower back. Add Outer Spiral and Organic Energy as you lay back for supta virasana.
- Sucirandrasana (Eye of the Needle Pose)
- Baddha Konasana
- Upavista Konasana: This is the pose I go to if I ever have a tweaky hamstring, and I've had great success focusing on the action of the outer shins to help heal hamstring pain in this pose. Line up the feet vertical (through the second toe mounds) and fire up the legs. As you hug the legs toward each other, keep the energy flow of the outer shins moving down, toward the floor. Then bend your knees enough to reach your hands under the thighs and grab hold of the fibers of all three hamstrings. Watch that your toes don't knock in. The outer shins should stay steady in their action to the midline and flowing down, and then use your hands to widen the fibers of the hamstrings into that resistance. Once you've got them tracked, anchor the thighs straight down the floor, sliding your hands out from underneath.
- Building on these principles you can go into any number of hip openers and forward bends. Try: TMP, Baby Cradle, Bharadvajasana 2, and lotus variations!
Monday, July 14, 2008
I know how it is. I used to dread doing abdominals, too. They always felt like a weak point for me, and so I avoided abdominal exercises at all costs.
But then to my own joy I discovered that abdominal exercises are built right into the Universal Principles of Alignment, which is to say, if you're doing the principles, you're engaging and strengthening and stretching your abs in every pose.
This is the cool thing. Abdominal exercises need not be something that you only do in isolation, in the same way that a practice of yoga need not be something that you do only on a yoga mat. Instead of isolating the abs, or our yoga practice, from our everyday experience, how can we see that they are embedded in everything we do?
- Open to Grace: Begin with a passive release with gravity from the pelvis into the earth
- Muscle Energy: When you engage muscle energy, everything tones, and that includes the abdominal core.
- Thigh Loop and Inner Spiral: These principles sets the thigh bones back into the hip sockets, and keep the hip flexors soft when you engage your abs. The hip flexors tend to be strong, and they'll easily overwork. It's interesting how your body will try anything to avoid actually working those abs.
- Pelvic Loop and Outer Spiral: Both of these principles help create more tone in the abdominal muscles. I find that Outer Spiral, which initiates with the waistline flowing back and the tailbone tucking under, creates more of a lift in the lower belly, while the Pelvic Loop, which also draws the waistline back but goes only down to the bottom of the sacrum and forward, engages more the lowest part of the abdominal core. Both principles together will give you an even tone through the abs. Note that the engagement of the abs initiates from the action of the back body (waistline back, tailbone and bottom of the sacrum down and in) rather than a contraction of the front. Of course, the front body does contract, but it's more the fluid result of the engagement through the back body.
- Organic Energy: Especially when the pelvis is the focal point, the stretch of Organic Energy through the bones of the body will give you tone and length in the abdominals.
- Tadasana: Believe it or not, even tadasana is an opportunity to work your abs. In fact, if you're truly standing upright, your abs will be engaged to support your stance. Try the tried-and-tested exercise of tadasana with a block between your inner thighs to feel the difference between Outer Spiral and Pelvic Loop. Engage the legs, activate Inner Spiral, turning the inseams of the legs back and wide. The block will move back as the tops of your thighs line up over your knees over your ankles. Notice how the belly might tend to distend with the action of Inner Spiral. Now add Outer Spiral, drawing the waistline back and scooping under through the tailbone. (To feel the lengthening of the tailbone, bring one finger to the tailbone and press the tailbone down into your finger.) Notice how the belly lifts with this action. Now do tadasana again, setting up in the same way, but instead of Outer Spiral, add the Pelvic Loop, which initiates by the waistline flowing back and then draws the bottom of the sacrum down and in. (To feel the action of the sacrum, bring one finger to the bottom of the sacrum/AKA top of the butt crack and draw that part down and forward into the body.) This will also tone the abs, but notice how it feels different from the action of Outer Spiral. To me, the tone is much lower from Pelvic Loop, and much more deeply integrated. Now root through the pelvis and legs and stretch your arms overhead, and you'll get a stretch to those abs while they're toned. Yes, this is how tadasana will always be performed in alignment. Everyday abs.
- High lunge: When you come into the pose, notice the relationship between your back thigh and your belly. If you lift the back thigh to line it up in the hip socket, does the belly collapse forward? And if you try to lift your belly, does the back thigh pop forward? A healthy engagement will have both the back thigh rooting back (into the hip socket) without the belly distending, so keep the power in your back leg and then sweep the waistline back and draw down through the bottom of your sacrum to get the low belly to lift. If the front hip is resting on the front thigh, this signifies a lack of tone through the Outer Spiral or Pelvic Loop.
- Parsvakonasana: Similarly, the low belly should be toned and lifting in this pose. Work through the principles in order. Getting Inner Spiral established is key to getting the tone in the lower belly without it pulling on your hip flexors or low back. Then once you have the thighs anchored back, draw back through the waistline and scoop under through the bottom of the tailbone/sacrum, especially on the front leg side, until the lower belly lifts up.
- Thigh stretch (in pigeon pose or anjaneyasana): It's always nice to do a thigh stretch (or more) before doing targeted abdominals, because that allows the hip flexors to soften and release rather than trying to pull you up. So do either of these thigh stretches. Watch in these poses how the belly and pelvis will tend to tip forward as you bring the back leg in. So keep good action in the legs (and especially the top of the back thigh BACK), and then add the Outer Spiral or Pelvic Loop to draw the waistline back and get the length in the lower back with a lift in the lower belly. The front hip should be lifting off the front thigh.
- Supine abdominal exercises: Doing abdominal exercises in a supine position gives the thighs something to press against (i.e. the floor), and this feedback helps us know when the hip flexors are overriding the abs. I recommend using a block between the inner thighs or knees for all of these, because it helps to de-activate the hip flexors. Between each set do a bride pose (setubandha) to lengthen the front body.
- Use a block between your knees, and then bend them in so the thighs are vertical (knees right about your hips). Let the thigh bones release down into the hip sockets. Squeeze the block and then turn the inner thighs in and down until you feel the lower back arch lightly. Then lengthen the bottom of your sacrum long and in to the body. From this action, you'll feel the lower belly tone. Now bring your hands behind your head and begin doing little crunches. Yes, little crunches. In fact, you can do them in your head, and it will probably have a strong effect. The key is to keep the thighs released (curve in lower back) and the action of the bottom of the sacrum drawing into the body. The best part (to me) is on the way back down from the crunch. If you keep the tone, as you lengthen down (with Organic Energy, rather than dropping back to the floor), you get engagement and length in the abs simultaneously, and this is what I find really supports posture. Once you've done a few crunches up and down, try twisties (aiming toward one knee and then the other).
- Take the block between your inner thighs, and bring the legs straight on the floor. Now the floor gives the feedback as to whether the tops of the thighs are indeed anchored down (with Inner Spiral/Thigh Loop). You should have a nice, lordotic curve in the lower back. Then add the Pelvic Loop, lengthening the bottom of the sacrum and drawing it into the body, without flattening the spine. Hands behind your head, and lift up! You can do little crunches, and also twisties (turning from side to side, bringing one elbow to the floor at a time), as long as the thighs stay anchored, the low back keeps its curve, and the bottom of the sacrum draws in. The twists will help you strengthen the obliques, while the straight-ahead crunches will help work out the rectus abdominus. All of them help tone the transverse abdominal muscle.
- Jathara Parivartanasana: Take the block between your knees again, and bend the knees in to 90 degrees. Stretch both arms out to the sides, palms up. Work through the principles so you have a curve and length in the lower back, then begin twisting by bringing the knees to one side and then the other. Keep both shoulders on the ground (you'll notice that, on the side that you're twisting away from, the arm bone will want to lift off the floor) so that you really are working your abs to do this. To intensify the exercise, try first straightening one leg as you take the knees to the opposite side, and then straightening both legs on both sides.
- Last one! With the block between your inner thighs and the legs straight up to the sky, bring both palms flat under your butt. Hug in to the block and turn the inner thighs in and down, so you have a curve in your lower back, and then let the pressure of your hands on your buttocks help to lengthen the spine. Then slowly bring the legs down to hover above the floor. Keep the inner thighs released, and the length in your lower back. You can do presses like this, or just release all the way down (one of these is often enough to fire up that rectus abdominus).
- Parsvakonasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Parivrtta Parsvakonasana: Go through some standing poses with this heightened awareness of the tone in the lower belly. REMEMBER that the low belly lifts as a result of the action in the back body, so focus your attention on the tailbone/sacrum action of Outer Spiral and Pelvic Loop.
- Virabhadrasana 3, Standing Splits: These two poses require a strong lift in the lower belly to keep the front hip from binding -- and this lift must come from the back body
- Handstand: Hopefully handstand will feel a little more easeful after all the work you've been doing. Note that the actions of Outer Spiral/Pelvic Loop are super important for finding balance here. Practice at the wall (set up as close as you can), getting the thighs back and then adding that length through the lower back. See if this new tone helps you to balance.
- Anjaneyasana/Thigh Stretch: Especially in anjaneyasana and the thigh stretch variation, I find that the pelvis and belly like to hang out on the front thigh. So this is a good place to build a remembrance of engagement through Outer Spiral and Pelvic Loop.
- Ustrasana: I love all of the backbends for finding tone and length in the abs, but ustrasana is particularly good to feel the length in the belly. Try doing it with a block between your inner thighs, to remind the thighs to stay back while you add Outer Spiral/Pelvic Loop. You'll feel the abs tone even before you curl back into the pose. Use Organic Energy to keep the pelvis rooted while you lift up and out of the lower back/lower belly into the backbend, and you'll get a deep stretch in the abs while they're toned.
- Cool down anyway you like.
Friday, July 4, 2008
I just read Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food, which describes how American society turned away from "food" in the mid 1970's in favor of "nutrition." This shift meant that, as a society, we began seeing food more in terms of its component parts (how many calories, how much fat, how much protein, how many vitamins) instead of as a whole that is a richly woven complexity of relationships that are more than we really understand.
The result? America's health problems have only worsened. Because what nutritionism fails to recognize is that the whole is always more than the sum of its component parts; that when two things come together in relationship, they make a THIRD thing (the relationship) which is valuable in itself. Interestingly enough, one study Pollan quotes follows two groups of people: one group eats food, and the other group eats whatever equals the same nutritional value as the first group, using supplements to get the nutrients. They found that the group that ate food were consistently healthier than the group that was fed nutrients.
When you extract substances from their context, they lose their power.
It got me thinking that the Universal Principles of Alignment work like this. Taken as a whole, under the umbrella principle of Opening to Grace, the they form a rich and complex web of relationships that supports health. Taken individually, they lose their power.
More than any other principle, I think that the Shoulder Loop gets taken out of the context of the universal principles, as some kind of magic supplement that will heal. Indeed, it's a powerful tool for creating both stability and opening in the shoulder girdle and neck. But taken on its own, it can actually be detrimental. Without the larger context of Opening to Grace -- that way that we step into the fullness and wonderment at the complexity of ourselves -- Shoulder Loop can flatten the thoracic spine, and even lead to the subluxation of ribs. (I learned this from experience.)
John Friend, in articulating the Universal Principles of Alignment, put them together as a system, where the relationships matter. Opening to Grace is the overarching principle, the reminder of the whole; and it stays present even as we access all of the component parts through the actions and loops and spirals.
Here's how Shoulder Loop works in the greater context of the whole:
- Open to Grace: Expand with fullness, in recognition of the self as whole. As part of this principle, the back body, including the back waistline and the back lungs, fills with breath. It reinforces the thoracic curve (which is naturally kyphotic) and brings the pranic body to meet the outer body. So when the outer body softens (ie, the heart melts with gravity) it doesn't diminish the inner light, but release onto the greater context of the self as whole.
- Muscle Energy: The action of Muscle Energy in the upper body will draw the upper arms back and the shoulder blades flat on the back. Again, this is all in a bigger context. The inner body maintains its fullness and breadth.
- Kidney Loop: This principle reinforces an expansion into the back body. It reminds us to keep the bigger context present, even as we work through specific actions. The sides of the waistline draw back, the back ribs lift, and the front body below the sternum softens downward.
- Shoulder Loop: The first time I felt Shoulder Loop, it was a revelation. The opening was so big in my heart, that I sought that ecstatic experience again and again in my practice. But the Shoulder Loop must work in synergy with the other principles. As you curl the head back and draw the bottom tips of the shoulder blades down the back and into the heart, keep the fullness in the upper back. The inner body fullness provides a kind of cushion for this deep action. If you lose it, the rib cage moves in too fast, and the shoulder blades chase the rib cage, and the thoracic spine just gets flatter. Even in backbend back, the energy body of the upper back has to meet the powerful action of the shoulder loop.
- Organic Energy: To me, this principle brings us back into a remembrance of the whole, as it connects all of the component parts back together in their complex relationships.
- Cat/Cow: It's a good place to feel the expansion of the back body. Try it on fingertips and you'll have even greater access to the "cat" motion.
- Lunge with cactus arms: This is a simple pose to feel what it's like to hold a remembrance of the whole even as you add other actions. One way to really get it is by contrast (think of the experiments between eating food and eating nutrients). First just pull your upper arms back an squeeze the shoulder blades into the heart. See what that feels like (probably not too good); there will be a flattening of the upper back, the shoulder blades may actually come together and touch, and the sensitivity in the upper back will dull. OK, erase that. Now try it again starting with an inflation inside, and then work through the actions without losing that sense of fullness. Notice how you have more space, and a greater sensitivity. This is what it's like to eat FOOD that's nourishing, rather than nutrients.
- Adho mukha svanasana: This was the pose that got me thinking about this, recently. There's a form of the pose that creates a deep backbend by stabilizing the arms (with Muscle Energy) and pumping the heart deeper toward the floor (with Shoulder Loop). However, if I forget the greater context of the whole while going into this deep pose, I get a sharp stabbing pain somewhere in the ribs. Basically, it's the outer from moving without a harmonious relationship to the inner form, and this is exactly the kind of overuse of Shoulder Loop that can cause problems. So remember to start with a fullness, even as you soften the heart. And then while you draw the shoulder blades into the heart to deepen the backbend, keep the inner body pressing back up against the shoulder blades. They should meet and be in relationship, rather than the outer form chasing the inner.
- Cobra pose: Similarly, cobra pose holds the same peril and similar delights. When you expand the inner body, remember that it's not just lengthening, but it's also a circumferential growth. Then draw the armbones back and curl back onto that fullness. When you feel the inner form meet the action of the shoulder blades, it will actually deepen the backbend from a place of holistic integration.
- L-Shaped handstand: You need a partner for this one, someone whom you're willing to let place their feet on your shoulder blades. Starting on hands and knees with your feet at the wall, hands a leg's distance from the wall, walk your feet up so that they're as high as your hips, and then straighten the legs. The partner will create active shoulder loop by pressing feet into the shoulder blades (gently!) and lifting up and in. As much as the shoulder loop activates, you'll have to keep the inner body full as resistance.
- Prasarita padottanasana (with shoulder stretch): When the arms are in the back plane, it's very easy to overdo the actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop, jamming the upper back. Start with a remembrance of the whole, and then keep that as you add the other actions.
- Virabhadrasana 1/Anjaneyasana: Go for it!
- Urdhva dhanurasana: It's harder to feel the fullness to the back body in backbends, because the form of the pose is with the upper back drawing into the body. So even before you go up to the top of your head, establish yourself in the first principle. Feel yourself as a whole, and step into the wonderful, complex enjoyment of that. Now engage Muscle Energy, drawing the upper arms back only as far as you can go without losing the fullness on the inside. Then curl your head back to go up. As you pump the heart more open, keep breathing into the back body, so it moves to meet the strong action of the shoulder blades.
- Upavista konasana and cool downs: Here's the cool thing: When you do backbends this way, with a remembrance of the bigger picture, the bigger context of yourself and your practice, it'll keep you from getting too blown out (giddy, restless), as can happen when we go to open the upper back.
Students have been requesting a Nerd on the Skull Loop, but I put it off for the longest time while I investigated more what it means to me.
I like how the relationship between the Skull Loop and the Shoulder Loop are such a great symbolic way to practice creating a balanced relationship between the head and the heart. If the head always leads the way, we can end up disconnected. But if the heart always leads the way, without the counsel of the mind, we can easily get into trouble.
The concept of Shiva Manasa Puja gives us a way of framing this dynamic relationship.
A puja is a ritual, or an offering, and in this case it links together the power of the mind (manas) in the worship of Shiva, the auspiciousness that is your very nature.
It's the idea that the mind is not something we have to get out of, nor is it something we have to empty out, nor is it something inferior to any other aspect of ourselves. The mind is a powerful expression of your own essence, and you get the hit of that when you connect it in the way of ritual offering (puja) in the service of your highest self.
This is why, in Anusara Yoga, you'll find that you're always being invited into thinking, and reflecting, and using the power of your mind to deepen your experience. Whenever we use our minds to deepen the inquiry into the nature of ourselves, we are doing this powerful puja.
In the context of a yoga practice, Shiva manasa puja involves using your mind to understand and negotiate the alignment relationships in your body. But it is also about bringing a sharp, interested, inquisitive mind to what you're doing. It's asking taking the time to reflect on your experience and ask yourself to articulate what are the effects of your actions.
Notice how the key in all of this is the power of articulation (matrika shakti), the power to express what it is that you're experiencing. And matrika resides in the throat, the perfect bridge between the physical heart and the head.
Here's how the puja plays out in the Universal Principles of Alignment:
- Open to Grace: Stand fully in the light of yourself, for you are none other than Shiva, the auspiciousness that is the essence of being. When you take this perspective, the inner body will naturally swell, from the waistline all the way up through the dome of the palate. This means that the sides of the neck also lengthen, bring the head more in line with the rest of the spine.
- Muscle Energy: This principle invokes the full engagement and participation of all parts of yourself in the puja. In the upper body, the upper arm bones will plug back into the shoulder sockets, but another key action is that the top of the throat (ie, where the hyoid bone sits) slides back. In this way, you make an active connection through the neck between the heart and the head, symbolically yoking them to each other. When you take the throat back, the muscles on the back of the neck tone, and will be ready to support the deeper opening of the heart (in shoulder loop) and the deeper engagement into the head (in skull loop).
- Shoulder Loop: The Shoulder and Skull Loop both have the same initiation point, in the center of the soft palate (in line with the base of the occiput). The Shoulder Loop flows back and down, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the heart. If you try to activate Shoulder Loop without first creating Muscle Energy in the back of the neck, the head will drop back under its own weight, shortening the back of the neck and blocking off prana (a primary cause of dizziness and headaches in backbending). So tone the back of the neck first, and then press actively back through the skull and draw down through the muscles of the upper trapezius, creating an active lordotic curve in the neck.
- Skull Loop: As mentioned above, the Skull Loop also starts in the soft palate, but it flows back and up, so the back of the skull lifts, lengthening the neck. It crests the top of the head and softens the front of the face down. To me, Skull Loop has a sense of drawing everything into focus, and thus holds a mental acuity. But it also inspires a dignity of spirit.
- Organic Energy: Once everything is lined up, extend organically from the focal point through the bones. Activating Skull Loop can help you to feel the extension of Organic Energy, since the back side of the loop moves out of the focal point.
- Tadasana: Stand with your heels and back up against a wall, and then bring your head into alignment over the pelvis and heart, so that the back of the skull is against the wall, too. Then go through the puja of the 5 principles to line up through the upper body. Notice what happens when you add the Skull Loop, sliding the back of the skull gently up the wall. How does it change the tone in your low belly? The feeling of expansion in your back body? Your vision? To ask yourself these kinds of questions as you practice is to do Shiva Manasa Puja, to use the power of your mind to cultivate a deeper awareness of your heart.
- High Lunge: Start with your hands on your hips, and just expand with light all the way up through the side of the throat. Notice if your head tends to come forward of your heart. If so, this first expansion will bring you back from that forward carriage. Then as you engage Muscle Energy and draw the upper arms back, also slide the top of your throat back. You'll feel the back of your neck engage. Now press back through your skull, as if into some resistance (remember what it felt like to have the wall there) and curl down through the back of the neck (without the head dropping!). Then lengthen up through the back of your skull and NOTICE how that changes your experience. Lastly stretch your arms up and overhead. As you bring the upper arms back behind your head, keep pressing the back of your head back in line with your upper arms.
- Adho mukha svanasana: In dog pose, as in any pose when the head is below the heart, the head and neck should be engaged in alignment with the spine rather than just hanging out. Feel what it's like in dog pose to just let your head hang. What does it do to the alignment of your shoulders? What about the rest of your body? Now expand with light, all the way through the sides of the throat (including the back of the throat), so that the head and neck are in line with the spine. Activate the muscles of the arms, drawing from the fingertips all the way up into the heart focal point. As the armbones lift alongside your ears, press the top of the throat back so that the head moves back alongside your arms. (I know, this sounds repetitive, but the feeling of the two actions is different, and when you do them together it really works.) From here you can engage the Shoulder Loop and then the Skull Loop. I surveyed the Nerds on what they felt change with Skull Loop, and it ranged from: back body expanded, increased length in the spine, breath opened up, low belly toned, etc... See what it does for you
- Parsvakonasana: Do this pose in the prep form, with your front arm resting on the knee, and take your top hand behind your head to the base of the occiput (on your skull, just above the neck). Here your hand can provide the resistance for the initiation of the two loops. It's great to learn how to do the loops into resistance, because without, the head can just flop back. When you add the Skull Loop, use your hand to lift up the back of the skull, and feel what happens.
- Handstand: Go to the wall for this one, with your fingertips very close to the wall. Kick up and rest your heels on the wall so you can focus on the upper body. Start by letting your head hang (it lengthens the neck with gravity), then engage by drawing energy up from your fingertips to take the upper arms back toward the wall. As you do, press the top of your throat back toward the wall too. Now curl back through your head for Shoulder Loop, and you'll feel the upper back engage. Keep that, and lengthen the back of your skull back down toward the floor (do this as an active extension, rather than letting the head drop again) and notice how this will help you to feel more in the back body, and more extension. Organic Energy happens almost naturally when you line up in this way.
- Sirsasana: The puja is the same in headstand. Just make sure you place your head in a spot that will allow you to create an optimal curve in the neck (not flat, not too curvy, but just right). Notice how the extension through the back of your skull helps to stabilize the pose. After headstand, go straight to downward-facing dog, where you can bring the neck into a neutral alignment with engagement (work it just as we did earlier) after the strong weight-bearing.
- Salabhasana variations: Because the head and neck lift away from the floor against gravity in these poses, they are a good place to build strength in the back of the neck. Start off laying on your belly with hands on fingertips to the sides (gecko arms). Expand on the inside and then bring your head up in line with your spine. Lift your upper arms, engaging the shoulder blades flat on the back, and then add the loops, and as you extend organically lift your hands up off the floor in line with your elbows. It probably won't be a very high salabhasana, but that's ok. The main thing is to keep the connection between your head and heart through the important bridge of the neck. Notice if the back of the neck shortens (too much curve) or flattens (not enough curve) and balance the loops accordingly. Then extend from the pelvis into the legs and back out of the crown of your head. You can do this pose with gecko arms, or arms alongside the body (hands off the floor) or even hands clasped behind your head. All variations are great to get tone in the back of the neck.
- Anjaneyasana: This is one pose where, as you go back into a deeper backbend (similar to dropbacks into urdhva dhanurasana) the head can disconnect from the heart. It's heavy, and so it tends to fall back with gravity, so building up the muscles on the back of the neck in those salabhasana variations is a good way to prepare for the deeper backbends. Go through the puja. As you curl deeper back by pressing actively through the back of the skull, keep the length up and out of the back of the skull, which will help you to expand the back body and not crunch in the low back.
- Ustrasana: I'm always asked by students what to do with the neck in ustrasana. They tend to either try to protect it, by holding the head up (which creates a kind of reverse shoulder loop), or to release fully into the pose, which shortens the back of the neck and, although it may feel OK while in the pose, it makes it nearly impossible to come up in alignment (dizziness, head-rush, seeing stars, and blackouts may follow). Find the place where the head serves the heart, going through the puja. In particular, focus on keeping the back of the neck strong and long.
- Setubandha: When weight-bearing on the head, you'll often have a greater access to the actions of shoulder and skull loop. Start in the prep pose, and set up the puja here: lengthen and release back. To feel the Shoulder Loop, curl the tops of your ears back and down toward the floor as you press the back of the skull down. This will help to lift the shoulder blades up and into the heart. Keep that and now lengthen the back of your skull toward the crown of your head, so that the weight on your head is more balanced in line with the middle of your ears. Then go up. Feel the place where your head presses into the earth -- it's going to be the same place of balance when we go to sarvangasana.
- Sarvangasana: The key to sarvangasana is to balance the actions of Shoulder and Skull Loop so that NONE (really, NONE) of the vertebrae are touching the floor. Because of the form of the pose, Shoulder Loop will need the greater emphasis. Find it by tipping the tops of the ears down and pressing back through that part of the skull; this will help lift the shoulder blades up and into the heart (as well as lift the cervical vertebrae off the floor). Keep that, and then balance the weight on your head to a place in line with the middle of your ears (that'll be a good marker for alignment between Shoulder and Skull Loops).
- Jalandhara bandha: The form of this bandha, with the chin resting on the notch between the collar bones, has an exaggerated length in the back of the neck. But it can feel clear and spacious when aligned with the 5 principles of this puja. Take a seat for meditation, resting your hands on your thighs. Sit tall in the light of yourself, especially lifting through the front of your chest and the sides of your throat. Keep the lift, and slide the top of the throat back. Curl the tops of the ears back just enough so that you feel the gentle flow of the Shoulder Loop down the back of the neck. Now add the Skull Loop. Lengthen the back of the skull, taking the energy up and over the crown of your head and softening the front of the face. Your chin will release down, but there's no need to pull it down or tuck it in; it will just be a natural extension. The skin on the back of the neck should still flow down, even as the skin on the back of your head lifts up. Breathe here with ujjayi breath.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
That pain in my right wrist came back again recently, and as always it led me to slow down, deepen my understanding, and learn something new in order to deal with it.
Obstacles have a way of doing that. Anytime we come up against an obstacle, in our practice or in our lives, it can be an invitation to a deeper engagement. That's not to say that the obstacles we encounter are "blessings" (a wrist injury, or any hardship, is hard to see as a blessing), but they are always opportunities. When we're stopped in our tracks by something, we have to pause, slow down, look more carefully, and find a way to engage that is going to advance our practice and our lives.
This is the gift of Ganapti (aka Ganesha, or the one with the head of an elephant). He's often called the Remover of Obstacles, but I don't see him that way. He's an elephant. (Ever hear of the elephant in the room?) He's that thing that's in your way, that threatens to crowd everything else out. In my mind, it's not like Ganesha swoops down and removes obstacles in your path; rather, his story (which is our story) reminds us that when we choose to engage that which lies in our path, we will see it not just as an obstacle but as an opportunity.
His story (at least one of them) goes like this:
One day, Ganesha asks his friend Vyasa, a great sage, to tell him the story of the Mahabharata. Vyasa agrees, but says that if he's going to tell it Ganesha must write it down. Ganesha agrees, but then raises the challenge by saying that he'll write it down only if Vyasa can keep him interested. And Vyasa again raises the challenge, agreeing but saying that Ganesha must understand every word. And so Ganesha breaks off his tusk and uses it to write out the great epic of the Mahabharata.
To slow down Ganesha's process of comprehension, Vyasa throws in a host of grammatical tangles and plot twists and digressions. These are the grantas ("knots"), and if you've ever heard the Mahabharata told or attempted to read it, you know that it is indeed a knotted story. But each of these knots invites you to slow down, to look more carefully, to ask what more this might mean. They invite us to savor the story, and chewing on each teaching to reveal the sweetness that's there (it's not for nothing that Ganapati's trunk always reaches for the sweets in his hand).
In dealing with my wrist pain, I had to slow down and chew on some teachings in order to get a new revelation. My practice led me to work on the spirals of the arms, which I have often forgotten to engage because they can be so confusing and besides, I told myself, they are really refinements that aren't so important if you engage even Muscle and Organic Energy. Of course, I discovered that this was not the case. OK, understanding the spirals of the arms can seem as difficult as untangling the story of the Mahabharata, but they make all the difference.
- Open to Grace: Have the courage to see that whatever obstacle presents itself to you in your path, it can be an opportunity for you to create a deeper engagement. That kind of openness translates into the body as an inner expansion, including through the sides of the torso from the waistline all the way up through the sides of the throat. There's also a natural softening and release when you realize you don't have to remove the obstacle, you can only engage it.
- Muscle Energy: When you engage muscle energy in the arms, drawing from the tips of the fingers to the focal point, the upper arm bones will plug back (to the back plane) in the shoulder sockets. Remember that Muscle and Organic Energy are primary energy flows in the body, and so this engagement will stay constant even as you add the refinements of the spirals of the arms.
- Expanding Spiral: Here's where things get a little knotted, and it will require a deeper engagement and understanding to work with the spirals of the arms. The expanding spiral of the arms and shoulders creates a widening of the upper back, and so it always comes first (always make space before you contract). Most of the time this is created by rotating the arms internally. You'll feel this primarily by turning the forearms in, so that the palms face backward (the inner rotation of the upper arms would compromise the muscle energy of the arm bones into the shoulder socket). The exception to all of this is when the arms are in the overhead plane, where the expanding spiral is created by spinning the arms externally. Try it out just standing in tadasana, first with the arms by your sides, and then with the arms overhead, to feel the effects on the upper back of spiraling the arms. If this is confusing, don't worry. Stay with me; it's worth slowing down and taking the time to get this.
- Contracting Spiral: The contracting spiral of the arms and shoulders narrows the upper back, hugging the shoulder blades (in particular the bottom tips of the shoulder blades) more toward the midline, and driving the head of the humerus more deeply into the shoulder socket. In most of the planes of the arms, the contracting spiral is created by rotating the arms outward (this is particularly activated in the upper arms, as the forearms must stabilize in their inner rotation to maintain the expanding spiral). Again, there's an exception: when the arms are in the overhead plane, the forearms rotating in toward the midline will create the re-engagement through the upper back of a contracting spiral. All this is to say that, in all cases, the forearms rotate inward and the upper arms rotate outward. However, the order in which you engage these rotations depends on the plane of the arms. When the arms are overhead (like in downward-facing dog, handstand, forearm-stand, urdhva dhanurasana, etc.), the upper arms must spin out first in order to make space for the contracting spiral of the forearms spinning in. In all other planes (neutral, front, side, back), the forearms must turn in first in order to expand the upper back to make room for the contracting spiral of the upper arms spinning out. Are you with me?
- Organic Energy: Thankfully, return this basic energy flow of extending out from your core. You've done the work, and transmuted what may have seemed like a knotted process into a deepening engagement of the shoulder girdle. Now just stretch from the active focal point out through the limbs.
- Tadasana: Experiment with the spirals of the arms in their five planes (neutral, side, front, back, and overhead). Notice how when the forearms rotate in, the upper back expands in all planes except in the overhead plane, where this pattern is reversed. Similarly, you'll feel how when the upper arms spin out, the upper back contracts in all planes except in the overhead plane. Remember that in all of this, the spirals of the arms are refinements that come within the larger context of Opening to Grace, and Muscle and Organic Energy, so as you play with them, keep the lift in the side bodies and the engagement of the humerus back into the shoulder socket.
- Surya namaskar: Add the spirals of the arms as refinements in surya namaskar. Pay close attention in the transition from plank pose to caturanga: once you've engaged through the arms, bend your elbows slightly wide to the side as you rotate your forearms in. Your index knuckles will get heavier from this action. Keep them rooted into the floor as you externally rotate the upper arms and move into caturanga. In cobra pose, start with a fullness on the inside and a softness on the outside, then engage through the arms. As in caturanga, bend the elbows slightly out to the sides (without losing the engagement of the upper arms to the back plane!) to initiate the expanding spiral through the forearms, then keeping the index knuckles rooted, spin the upper arms out and stretch the pose.
- Test the spirals of your arms: To see which arm tends to spin more externally and which tends to spin more internally, try this: Bring your arms out in front of you palms face up, as if carrying a tray. Turn your right palm down keeping your left palm up. Then turn both hands the other way, left palm down and right palm up. Do this several times and notice if there's resistance in the muscles of the forearm when you move toward the external rotation (toward palm up). If so, that arm is more internally rotated. In an informal survey of Nerds, it was unanimously the case that the side where the forearm was more rotated inward (ie, resisted turning the palm face up) was the one that had more trouble in the wrist, elbow and shoulder.
- Prasarita padottanasana with shoulder stretch: When the hands are clasped behind the back, it's more natural to place the hand on top that corresponds to the forearm that is more internally rotated. Let me say that another way: the hand that's on top will naturally spiral in more because of the form of the pose, and so it will be more natural to place that hand on top. Notice if that's what you do when you clasp hands. Now bring the opposite hand on top. I've found that if you practice these clasps with the more externally rotated arm on top, it will help balance out the musculature through the arms and shoulders over time. Do the shoulder stretch this way. When you activate the spirals of the arms, to get the forearms to turn in more bend your elbows and widen them, pressing the index knuckles toward each other, then spin the upper arms out.
- Virabhadrasana 2, Trikonasana, Vasistasana: Both of these poses have the arms in the side plane. In this plane, you'll know the spirals of the arms are balanced when the eye of the elbow (the soft, inner part) is pointing in the same direction as the crown of your head (i.e. straight up in Vira 2). I find it hard to get that degree of spin without some resistance so try holding your forearm in with one hand while you externally rotate the upper arm.
- Parsvakonasana: This is an overhead plane pose, so it's a little trickier. One way to feel the spirals is to back out of the top arm so that the arm is pointing straight ahead (front plane) instead of overhead. Here, lengthen the side of the torso and draw in so that the upper arm moves back. Keeping that spiral the forearm in by pressing the index finger toward the floor, as if into some resistance; then rotate the upper arm out to get it more deeply integrated into the shoulder socket. With this action, now stretch the arm overhead. When the arm is in the overhead plane, you can re-activate the spirals, spinning the upper arm out first (so the palm faces back behind you) to widen the upper back, and then spinning the forearm in (so the palm faces the floor).
- Adho mukha svanasana: Again, we have the arms in the overhead plane, so the outer spiral of the upper arm must come first. But remember, before you engage the spirals, first soften and open, and then engage the arms to the back plane. For the expanding spiral, lift the inner upper arms toward the sky, and then re-anchor through the index knuckles into the earth to feel the shoulders connect more deeply on the back. Keeping those two spirals going, extend the pose.
- Adho mukha vrksasana: I found that working the spirals of the arms in handstand helped to keep my wrist clear. When you're up, just like in dog pose take the inner upper arms back, and keeping that action strong, press again through the index knuckles.
- Pinca mayurasana: This one is a great pose to play with the spirals, because you can change the foundation to emphasize one or the other. Try the pose with the palms face up (with your wrists pressing up into a block for extra stability). This emphasizes a strong external rotation of the upper arms. (If you have a practice buddy, have them press your thumb pads to the floor while you're in the pose to really feel this). If you start with your arms in this position, the external rotation of the upper arms will give a widening in the upper back once you're up (overhead plane). With that established, try flipping the palms back down or to hold the edges of the block to re-engage the shoulder girdle.
- Parsvakonasana bound: The bound poses can certainly feel tangled, but if you use the spirals of the arms you can get more space for the bind. Try it first in a prep pose, with the top hand just to the small of your back (back of your hand pressing up against your back). Here, lift through the side of the torso and then draw the upper arm back in the shoulder socket. Keep that as you work with the spirals. To get more of the expanding spiral, rotate the forearm in so that the pinky presses up against your back. Notice how you can get more length and space this way. Now spin the upper arm out to open the shoulder girdle back. Once you feel it in the prep pose, try the full bind.
- Eka pada rajakapotasana thigh stretch: If you do this pose with the back hand pressing down into the foot (fingertips forward and elbow to the sky), the spirals of the arms will help open the shoulder stretch even here. Press your index knuckle down into your foot, widening your elbow slightly to the side, then lift and open the upper arm out.
- Dhanurasana: I wasn't sure I'd ever like this pose again, as it would always pull on my wrist in an uncomfortable way. But it works! Hold your ankles with your feet flexed, and when you're up, press your index knuckles up against your ankles (that's expanding spiral) and then spin the upper arms out.
- Purvottanasana: You can try this pose with the fingertips pointing forward, to the sides, or back. My favorite is forward, because it gives me the greatest access to the expanding spiral (turning the forearms in toward the midline), which in turn gives me greatest access to the contracting spiral (lifting the inner upper arms and spinning them out), which just feels great.
- Setubandha: I figured out a new way to do this while playing with the spirals. Before going up, bend your elbows to the floor (fingertips point up, palms face in). Lift through your inner body and soften into the floor. Now root the upper arms down. Keeping that, turn the palms to face forward, as if pressing up against some resistance. The upper back will widen and you'll have greater access to opening the upper arms in external rotation. Now go up, keeping the palms face forward.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana: This was the pose that was the pose that was always hardest with the wrist injury, and it was where I really healed my wrist. Start by pressing to the top of your head and pause there to engage all of the principles. Plug the arm bones back through muscle energy before working on the spirals. When on top of your head, the arms are in the front plane, so spin the forearms in first, bringing the elbows slightly wide to access this more. Then keeping heavy through the index knuckles, rotate the upper arms out and go up. Once in the pose, the spirals are reversed. So to re-engage, draw the inner upper arms back, then keeping them moving back, re-anchor through the index knuckles. Oh this feels good.
- Sarvangasana: This pose requires a lot of power and opening in the upper back to get all of the vertebrae off the floor, and the spirals of the arms really help. Go to plow pose first, then clasp hands behind your back (place the hand on top that tends to outer spiral more, as we did in the earlier shoulder stretches). Bend your elbows into the floor, bringing your clasped hands up away from the floor. Once you have strong muscle energy, with the upper arms down, turn the forearms in (index knuckles toward each other) and the open the upper arms out. Notice how that helps to draw the bottom tips of the shoulder blades more to the midline. Curl your head back and then placing your hands on your back stretch up into the pose. If you find that any of your vertebrae are on the floor, go back to the clasped hand variation to re-engage the spirals and lift off.