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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Shri Vidya: The Technology of Opening Up to More

One of the things that happens when you're a YogaNerd is that the technology of the yoga can be so enticing and exciting that we can get caught up in the details and refinements, but forget the big picture. It's important to remember that this technology is in the service of something more: it's Shri's vidya. It's for the sake of beauty, for the sake of what we hold valuable, and for that which brings us to an expansion of consciousness and of our hearts. If we lose sight of Shri and do the technology just for the sake of technology, we can easily end up feeling disconnected.

(There's a great story about the Pine Forest Sages, who have gotten so invested in refining the technology of their yoga that they begin to neglect their wives, meaning, they've forgotten the purpose of all of this yoga anyway. It's supposed to serve your life, not isolate you from your life. Shiva steps in, with his pal Vishnu, and as hot young things get the sages and their wives all hot and bothered, to bring them back into remembrance of what it's all for. For Shri, for beauty, for love. If you ever wondered why Shiva was out there dancing in the forest, this is the back story.)

Whenever you practice, remember Shri, remember what is valuable, abundant and life affirming. This is why Opening to Grace is the first principle in Anusara Yoga, we remember Shri and place all of the other actions and refinements within the context of Shri.

The technology focus of the week are the actions of "shins-in-thighs-out," a combination of Muscle Energy to the midline and the widening aspect of Inner Spiral away from the midline. Muscle Energy can feel like hard science (it's precise and linear), and if done in isolation, you can actually start to feel hardened and, well, isolated. But when you activate Muscle Energy from a remembrance of Shri, it has a sweetness and becomes something that serves a deepening experience. Inner Spiral is less linear, and more intuitive. It curves and turns and broadens. It needs the steadfast, linear remembrance of Muscle Energy as something to push up against to expand into more.

Now we use the phrase "shins-in-thighs-out" as shorthand, but Muscle Energy to the midline includes the thighs and pelvis, and Inner Spiral widens all the way up through the inner rim of the pelvis (iliacus) and the waistline (catching the psoas and quadratus lumborum, and moving them into alignment). Once they're lined up, you can stretch them with Outer Spiral and Organic Energy. This lateral expansion through the pelvis and waistline is a powerful way to open the hips and lower back. Why? For Shri, for beauty, for more.

So, a summary of the technology, in the service of more:

  1. First start with a remembrance of what it's all for; this technology is in the service of something great.
  2. Then with remembrance, hug the legs and pelvis in toward the midline. If you keep the second toe mound lined up vertically (when the heel is lifted), that will help you remember the midline as you add Inner Spiral.
  3. The back leg side always needs more Inner Spiral, so spin the inner back leg in, back, and especially wide. Widen not just the thigh, but also the inner rim of the pelvis (iliacus) and the waistline.
  4. Keeping the width to the back leg side, spin the low belly (the part of your belly that's in between the pelvic bones; it's LOW) toward the front leg side
  5. And bring it back to Shri with an expansion from the core out.
Here's a sequence to practice these actions, especially to expand and widen the pelvis and waistline area:

Downward-facing dog: with the feet placed, bend your right knee and cross the knee in front of the left leg. The left hip will widen toward the sky, as both feet turn out to the left. Keep the arms steady, the legs active to the midline, and broaden the whole left side of the body, feeling the stretch in the inner rim of the pelvis and waistline. Then go to the other side, and move back and forth like this.

High lunge: line it up, and then take a side stretch over to the front leg side to really feel the widening of the back leg side (leg, pelvis and waistline)

Vasistasana prep pose: In vasista on the right side, step your left foot forward towards the front of your mat and turn the foot out, so it points the same direction as your back foot. Charge the legs to the midline (that will lift the bottom leg up toward the sky). And then keeping the tone in the leg, slowly start to widen the right hip and waistline toward the floor. You can go all the way down.

Goofy lunge and goofy parsvottanasana: Goofy foot on the back foot means that you turn the back leg/foot inward so much that you'll be on the outer blade (pinky-toe-side) of the foot. Keep strong action to the midline as you do, and then widen that back leg a lot. You'll get the iliacus to stretch in this way

Parsvakonasana (and other side plane standing poses): Use the power of the shins to the midline to widen the back leg side (leg, pelvis, waistline) up, and that will make space for the front hip to tuck under more.

Parivrtta Trikonasana/Parsvakonasana: oh my god this is so great.

Balancing in inversions (try this in handstand, forearmstand, even headstand): the leg that you kick up with will tend to rotate the pelvis outward, so hold a remembrance to the midline with that leg and widen through the back of the pelvis. Kick up just to an L-shape at first, with your kicking leg vertical and the other leg horizontal. Here you can re-establish your alignment, by spinning the back (vertical) leg in, while sliding your belly to the front (horizontal) leg side. It's amazing how this brings you more into balance.

Hanumanasana: find the midline (back foot with second toe mound vertical), and then push out against it, expanding the back of the pelvis and hamstrings.

Janu sirsasana: In these seated poses, you can actually lean to the back leg side to find the width and get the hip flexors to release, and then keeping the heaviness on the back leg side, slide your belly to the front leg and go for it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

How to Expand the Middle: 5 Steps to a Deeper Thigh Stretch

I just returned from the Advanced Intensive in Tucson with John Friend, and I'm pleased to report that I actually felt a thigh stretch. It was revelatory.

We were studying the Spanda-karikas, a rich and trippy Tantric text that is all about the nature of the universe (that means you) as pulsating, throbbing, vibrating consciousness. When I first learned about the idea of spanda several years ago, I went out and bought the book, thinking it sounded like a good read. Instead, it was rather impenetrable, much like any text on yoga philosophy that you pick up and try to read on your own. But going through the 52 verses of the Spanda-karikas with John's guidance (he has his own translation and commentary in the works, and we got a limited first edition), group discussion, and intense asana practice, it seemed so practical and relevant to our everyday experience.

The verse that struck me this weekend was Stanza 17 (in Jaideva Singh's translation):

"The fully enlightened has, always and incessantly, the undeviating knowledge of the Self in all the three states [waking, dreaming and dreamlessness]; the other one (viz. the partially enlightened) has it only at the beginning and end of each state."

To me, what this verse is saying is that enlightenment is an everyday experience. We all get the hit of connection, whenever we're in the excitement of the start of something new, or in the sweetness/bittersweetness of a cycle coming to an end. (Do you ever notice how you can drop really deep into meditation as soon as the bell to conclude rings? That's it!) This is what we call abhisara -- the peaks and the troughs of the waves are places of intense connection, where we are held "in intimacy with the divine" (Douglas Brooks' definition). We're all going to get those moments of awakening in our lives, and the invitation is to cherish them but not cling to them, because they will come and go. We can't live our lives always at the peak, or at the trough. Life moves in waves. Everything is spanda.

But there's more here. Enlightenment is what we'll get, whether we do yoga or not. So why do yoga? The key is the middle. We all have experienced the dullness of routine, whether it be in relationship, at work, or in our yoga practice. For as exciting as something may be the first time, after you've been doing it for a while it can get -- let's face it -- boring. When you get used to something, you stop paying attention so carefully. This is that middle part of the wave.

What this verse is saying, I think, is that as we become more established in our yoga (our engagement of ourselves and the world), enlightenment becomes more and more everyday, not just at the beginning and end of cycles, but throughout the whole cycle.

It is no coincidence that Anusara's principles of alignment also move in spanda, in pulsations and waves. They are meant to establish us in the spanda that is pulsing us.

All this is to say, here's how you can get a deeper thigh stretch...

So when I announced to the YogaNerd class that we were going to do ONLY thigh stretches for 1.5 hours, I was met with the comment that "there are only really 3 thigh stretches, aren't there?" Well no, actually.

You can get a thigh stretch in something as simple as a lunge (back leg) if you do it with a certain kind of alignment.

Three of the four quadriceps muscles (all but the rectus femoris) will stretch if you just bend your knee to full flexion (as their primary action is extension of the knee). The rectus femoris spans both the knee and the hip joint (as a hip flexor), and so in order to stretch this muscle you must also get extension at the hip. Similarly, the psoas muscle (which I include here, as it does cross the hip joint to attach at the lesser trocanter of the femur) will only get a stretch when the pelvis is in extension. That means that in such poses as anjaneyasana, the thigh stretch will only reach the rectus femoris and the psoas if the pelvis is tipped upright or (even better) back toward a backbend. If it tilts forward (as it will tend to do) so that the belly and (sometimes also) the top of the pelvis are resting on the front thigh, it's really not getting in there.

Here's how you line it up to get the most out of your thigh stretch:

  1. Soften and release passively with gravity. When you bring the foot in, keep your pelvis squared off to the front (you'll probably need to turn toward the front leg side).
  2. Engage the muscles of the legs, particularly by drawing from the peripheral parts (feet, or knee when it's on the floor as part of the foundation) to the focal point (usually the pelvis, in the poses below). When the leg is in ardha bekhasana variation, use your hand pressing down on the metatarsals (bring your foot all the way to the butt, really) while flexing your toes back toward your hand.
  3. Root the thigh bone back in the hip socket. If the top of the femur is pushed forward relative to the acetabulum, you'll feel the stretch more at the tendon, rather than at the belly of the muscle (which is where we expand the middle). When the leg is in ardha bekhasana, press the base of the thigh bone (right above the kneecap) into the floor and drag it forward, so the skin and muscles on the front of the thigh draw up. This activates the thigh loop, and through see-saw principle, will root the top of the femur back into the hip socket. As much as you press your foot down toward your butt, keep the muscles on the front of the thigh drawing forward and up. If you feel the skin above the knee start to slide back, you know you've lost this action. Notice, however, how when you get the femur rooted back , the pelvis will want to tilt anteriorly. So, to get into the rectus femoris and the psoas, keep the top of the femur back and then...
  4. Get the pelvis upright, by drawing the tailbone (and bottom of the sacrum, and buttocks flesh) downward.
  5. Stretch that baby, extending from the focal point down into the earth and the back up and out through the spine.
Practice: Thigh stretch, thigh stretch.

Lunge: really, a lunge can be a thigh stretch, if you get the top of the femur rooted back AND simultaneously get the pelvis upright (or, why not?, moving toward a backbend)

Eka pada rajakapotasana 1: back leg in ardha bekhasana
Eka pada rajakapotasana 2, 3, 4: see above
Ninja variations: all of the EPRK poses can be done at the wall, with the back knee up against the wall. Work to bring the pelvis upright (even flush up against the wall). Try doing these with your back toes tucked under (onto the wall) and use your hand pressing down on the heel toward the floor to deepen the stretch

Ardha bekhasana: try this one by lifting your pelvis up off the floor at first (your front arm will be more like in cobra pose), so that you're just on the base of the thighbone on the thigh stretch leg, then go through the steps above, lastly sliding your pelvis back to the floor without losing the action of drawing the base of the thighbone forward and up.

Supta virasana: as you go back in this pose, try lifting your pelvis up off the floor, and, keeping the tops of the thighs flowing down toward the floor, lengthen your tailbone and buttocks so much toward your knees that the pelvis comes to neutral.

Ustrasana: 1 leg in ardha bekhasana
Setubandha: 1 leg in ardha bekhasana
Urdhva dhanurasana: you get where this is going...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How to Melt a Heart for Valentine's Day

It has been bitterly, miserably, cheek-stingingly cold in New York these past few days, and there came a moment yesterday when I was walking to class with the wind on my raw face, and I wondered if I would ever be warm again. My back was all hunched, and a thick knot was forming right behind my heart, and despair was about to set in. But then I remembered that my sweetie had made gibanica that day (his first-ever attempt) and that we would dine together at home on this gooey and cheesy and crispy Serbian dish, and everything just softened. And the cold was no longer so biting, and in fact, I don't think I was cold anymore at all. The cherished vision was enough to melt my heart, and the knot in my upper back slid away.

That place in the upper back that hardens in the cold, it's the same place that rounds out in a protective hunch when we're scared or feel the need to protect ourselves. It's the thickest part of the upper back (around T7, in line with the top of the diaphragm, the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, and the bottom of the sternum -- the heart focal point), and it tends to be pretty immobile. It makes sense, really, since it's also right in line with the base of the physical heart, a vital organ that needs protecting.

The thing is, we can overprotect (in love as in the body) to the point that there's such a thick shell around the heart that nothing/nobody gets in or out, and we miss a lot of the magic of life (these are my grandmother's words). To open that physical place of the heart center is a powerful practice in asana, as melting the heart involves a release of built up layers of protective mechanisms.

To do it, all you need is a vision, a remembrance, a cherished thought. What is it that makes you go soft on the inside? What do you love? Value? Cherish? Fill yourself with that remembrance, and you will find that the outer layers naturally soften. This is what we call Opening to Grace, the first principle in Anusara Yoga. It moves from a feeling inside, but it has physical applications and effects:

Inner Body Bright: Evoke the things and people that you love and cherish, and fill with the warmth that they provide your soul. There's a full expansion on the inside, from the side waistlines up through the sides of the throat, and the front and back of the torso.

Outer Body Soft: When the inner body is bright your outer form can soften onto that fullness, and the heart melting is part of this softening. It's as if the remembrances you've evoked are so powerful that your body knows it's in a safe place, and so it naturally releases.

The thing is, that thick part of the upper back (the heart center), is pretty stubborn, and doesn't release easily. For most of us, the area above the heart center (between the shoulder blades and up through the neck) is much more mobile, and it will do all of the softening given half the chance, preventing that place of the heart from cracking open. So when you expand on the inside, pay special attention to expanding into the upper back and the back of the neck, and then keeping that fullness, allow the area around T7 (it's pretty low!) to soften. It may only move a tiny bit at first. That's OK. Sometimes it's a good idea to be judicious in opening your heart. Just think about whatever it is in your life that makes you go soft inside. Then you've got it!

Once you've established this first principle, the other actions serve to reinforce and build on the fullness in the back body and the melting of the heart. Specifically, Muscular Energy in the upper body will draw the head of the arm bones back into the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades flat on the back, which gives a solid support for the opening of the heart. The Shoulder Loop draws the bottom tips of the shoulder blades (in line with the heart center) forward into the body. And Organic Energy moves with joyous expression from the heart (we'll do a lot of poses with the heart center as the focal point).

In a certain way, the first principle is not only the foundation for all of the other actions, but it also holds these actions secreted within it. When you get Inner Body Bright/Outer Body Soft, the armbones will release back into the shoulder sockets, and the shoulder blades will nestle onto the upper back and release downward toward the pelvis.

Here are some practice ideas for playing with this:

Hands and knees: this is a great place to feel the heart melting, as it releases with gravity. Start with a fullness on the inner body, and keep that (especially in the upper back) as you release more specifically at the heart center. You might feel how the area at between the top of the shoulder blades and at the neck, will want to soften faster than at the area around the bottom tips of the shoulder blades. Just take several breaths of expansion and release, with a focus on melting the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the body.

Try moving from hands and knees through pranam into downward-facing dog, keeping your awareness on that spot in the upper back that you've been melting, as it becomes the focal point for Dog pose.

In downward-facing dog, do as you did on hands and knees, keeping the inner body expansive and the upper arms floating up, while you soften at the base of the heart (rather than higher up, between the upper shoulder blades and neck).

Now try surya namaskar, with special attention on this heart spot when moving through plank to caturanga to cobra/upward-facing dog. Notice where you tend to soften in your upper back. Shift the place of opening and release all the way to the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, and feel how this changes caturanga and cobra (reinforcing the first principle with strong muscular action and shoulder loop).

These actions are key to learning to jump forward from downward-facing dog into the uttanasana, with a little hovering before you land. You have to be willing to go for it (think of jumping into handstand, as your hips will have to get that far back to find the balance), and you'll have to be willing to soften that place in your heart (when your hips go back, they'll be counterbalanced by driving the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into that spot in your upper back).

This is actually really helpful for pinca mayurasana, too. If you have a friend who can help you, have them bring either their inner knee or better yet the ball of their foot into the stiff part of your upper back while you kick up and while you're in the pose. It feels weightless!

Standing poses: try doing them with your top hand (or both hands, when the arms are symmetrical) behind the base of your skull, to give active resistance for the shoulder loop in order to open that part in the upper back.

Backbends: just go for it now.
makarasana, dhanurasana, rajakapotasana
eka pada rajakapotasana 1, 2, 3, 4
scorpion (I finally learned scorpion when I learned to melt in the middle thoracic, not just around my neck)
urdhva dhanurasa, dwi pada viparita dandasana

Seated poses: this is really an interesting side note, but when you do seated forward bends with a focus on keeping the inner body lifted while melting the base of the heart, the whole pose unfolds, because it helps get more even curve in the spine. Try it out in janu sirsasana, upavista konasana, pascimottanasana. Be sure to lift the undersides of the arms in line with your ears with strong muscular energy to go deeper into the upper back.