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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Path of Shri: How to Move an Elephant, or The Cheapest Nonstop

Shri is the name we give to that abundant, valuable, life-affirming energy that is the very nature of everything. One of the measures of our participation in Shri is economy; that is to say, we know we're making good choices when those choices require the least amount of effort to get the desired result.

I call this the "Cheapest Nonstop Principle", which is to say, just take the flight that will get you there without any layovers for the least amount of money. Really. It's not worth waiting around in an airport for a couple of hours, or risk missing a connecting flight due to delays, to save $50.

In the Indian tradition, the iconographic representation of this principle is the ankusha. It's that axe-looking thing that Ganesha usually carries, which is really an elephant goad (the thing he needs to move himself). How do you get an elephant to move? You could put a lot of effort behind pushing it, but let's face it: that's a waste of energy, and it might not get you where you want to go. Instead, you use a goad. Which is a relatively small implement that, when used in just the right place will give you the desired result with very little effort. Of course, you have to know where that exact place is, or where the exact places are (there's not just one way in, but multiple entry points to the self).

In my practice recently, I've been exploring using the ankusha at the place of the outer ankle as a way of economizing effort while opening up possibilities to more of Shri's abundance. The connective tissue around the outer ankle is the weakest part of the foot (something I learned from Sianna Sherman), and definitely the weakest link in activating Muscular Energy to the midline. The spreading of the 4th and 5th toes to the side (those tiny toes) will activate the peroneal muscles, which run along the outer shins and hug the shins to the midline. But it's because both the peroneus longus and peroneus brevis run below the distal end of the fibula (the outer ankle bone) that it's so hard to get the bottom part of the shin to hug in evenly with the rest. To do this, lift and spread the little toes to the side and simultaneously lift the outer foot/outer ankle toward the outer knee. Peroneus tertius (Calais-Germaine says it's "absent in some individuals") will participate in this. (Contrast the outer ankle with the bulky, strong connective tissue on the inner ankle, including the deltoid ligament, the flexor retinaculum and extensor retinaculum, and you'll get a sense of why the outer ankle is comparatively weak.)

As I mentioned, there's more than one place that will give you access to a deeper experience, and I've been pairing the action of the outer ankle with an extension through the inner heel (which gives length to the hip flexors through Organic Energy). When these two points are prodded into greater participation, you'll have greater access to the power of the midline and deep opening the hips, which, let's face it, can sometimes seem elephantine in their slow progress.

In all poses, when you activate Muscular Energy to the midline, lift and spread the toes - particularly the little toes to bring the goad to the outer ankle to hug in. Then extend organically from the focal point (mostly pelvis in this practice, with the exceptions of handstand and eka pada galavasana) through the bones of the legs, focusing on the extension of the inner heel.

  • Tadasana: Feel the energy flow in your legs. Notice which leg seems to be more rooted and which one more lifted. Notice, too, the energy flow down through the inner heel. Which one is lighter? Does it correspond to the side with the tighter hip? To the side that is more prone to knee pain/injury?
  • Lunge (w/fingertips on the floor): On the back foot, spread the little toes to the sides and draw the outer ankle bone to the midline along with the rest of the legs/pelvis. Keeping that, extend organically through the legs, especially the inner heel. Feel the difference in energy flow in the legs in uttanasana before switching sides.
  • Urdhva tadasana: use a block between your shins placed vertically on the medium setting (the lower part of the block should be just above your ankle bones). Hug to the midline, and use the block to build awareness of hugging the lower shin to the midline. Watch that the knees do not rotate in when you do this. Then extend organically, especially down through the inner heels and stretch the arms overhead. You'll probably feel the muscles deep in your belly (psoas) lengthen and release.
  • Surya namaskar with the block vertically between the shins. In plank, caturanga, cobra, keep hugging the lower part of the block evenly.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: keep the block between the shins, bend your knees, connect to the midline at the lower shins, then get your thighs back and wide without losing the connection, then extend the legs
  • Standing sequence: trikonasana, ardha chandrasana, ardha chandra chapasana, parivrtta ardha chandrasana, urdhva prasarita ekapadasana. Notice how in balancing poses, the outer ankle tends to want to collapse laterally. Bring the ankusha there, and you'll find more balance.
  • Bound standing sequence, in parsvakonasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana
  • Pigeon prep: point the front foot, and do with a narrow angle with the front knee. Spread the baby toes into the floor so much that the outer ankle lifts off the floor, then allow the femur to descend.
  • Pigeon prep: take the front shin parallel to the front of your mat, with the foot flexed. Spread the baby toes into the floor until the outer ankle is off the floor, then extend through the inner edge of the foot, especially the inner heel.
  • Eka pada galavasana
  • Vajrasana: big toes together, ankle bones touching. This may seem impossible, or it may seem strangely easy, after all the other work the outer ankles have done.
  • Virasana/supta virasana: Line up the feet so there is a straight line through the shin bones, the middle of the heel, and out through the second toe. Spread the 4th and 5th toes to the sides (you can use your hands to press them out and down into the floor). At the same time, hug the outer ankle bone in to the midline, until the inner ankle presses up against your hip. Keep that, and then extend (up) through the inner heel so that it is not collapsed inward but rather is going straight up. If you can keep the baby toe spreading down and the outer ankles hugging in (no gap between the inner ankle and your hip!), come back to supta virasana
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana to baby cradle with front leg: Use both hands holding the baby cradle leg on the outer shin (from underneath), so that you are holding just above the ankle bone with one hand, and at the top of the shin with the other. Keep the foot very active, little toes spreading and inner edge of the foot extended, and then draw the whole shin bone to the midline (toward your chest).
  • Bharadvajasana II
  • Yogidandasana: Set up like we did in TMP/Baby cradle, holding the shin. Find the connection to the midline through the whole shin, and then tip your thigh back to go into the pose.
  • Baddha konasana
  • Agni stambasana
  • Baddha konasana with both feet on a block: same pose, but start with the outer blades of your feet on the block, hips lifted. Keep pressing the baby toes down into the block, stretch your inner heels into each other, and then let the thighs/hips descend down and back toward the floor.
  • Ardha mulabandhasana
  • Mulabandhasana
  • Padmasana
  • Pascimottanasana
  • Savasana

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