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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Mapping the Topography of the Inner Body

Recently, I've been playing a lot of violin in preparation for a concert, and what usually happens when I'm playing a lot of violin is that my inner body begins to return to its habitual pattern: right side body short, twist to the right, right armbone forward. Of course, this is its habitual pattern because I've been playing violin since I was 5 years old, in just that way.

In the yoga tradition, this is what's called samskara, and it makes up the landscape of your consciousness (and from a Tantric perspective, everything is consciousness, including your physical form).

Every time you do something, it creates a groove, and if you do it repeatedly, in the same way, the groove deepens, and now you have troughs and plateaus and ravines that make up who you are. Sure enough, if you do something repeatedly over time, the samskara is no longer a groove but a rut: you're just stuck doing the same thing in the same way again because the samskara is so deep it pulls you in. This is as true for the physical form as it is for the subtler experiences of minds and hearts. Walk with your bag over your right shoulder for years, and it will leave an imprint; react in the same way to similar situations again and again, and your tendency to keep reacting in the same way will only deepen. We harden into our samskaras, but yoga invites us to make ourselves soft (like wax) in order to participate in creating the landscape of ourselves

The Tantric response to samskara is not to eliminate them, but to create mudra. A mudra is a seal or an imprint; it's both the thing that makes the mark, and the mark that's made. And as such, it implies a certain kind of relationship and agency in creating the topography of our consciousness. My teacher Douglas Brooks says that, while samskaras are more volatile, mudras are the deep contours of our consciousness. To make mudra, we have to become the agent of imprinting ourselves, aligning to the deepest imprint of ourselves.

In Anusara Yoga terms, this is what we call the optimal blueprint. It's the place where your inner and outer body are aligned in the best possible way for energy to flow. To know where that place is, you have to soften, open to doing things in a way that is not habitual, and see the deep contours of your consciousness so you can align inside. We have to make ourselves malleable, and this is the first principle of in Anusara Yoga: Opening to Grace.

In the first few years of doing yoga, I wasn't very aware of the particular (violin-playing) contours of my inner body, and so rather than making mudra, I was just creating samskaras. Sure, my body changed and got stronger and more flexible quickly (samskaras are volatile). You can work from your outer body and get all kinds of great results. But I also started to find (over time, over repeated action on an inner misalignment) that my right shoulder wouldn't integrate properly, or that my right wrist would get jammed when weight-bearing.

And then I discovered with help from my teachers that my inner body, and how it was exactly turned in the way that I turn when I play violin. And I discovered the process of making mudra, of aligning the inner body first, and then imprinting the outer form onto that, creating a seal.

The inner body is your energetic body (after all, your physical form is just energy moving). John Friend sometimes calls it the "etheric double." Your whole body has an etheric double, but we're going to focus on the inner body of the upper torso, which will have a particular impact on the alignment of the shoulder girdle, the ribs, the wrists, and even the diaphragm. Unless the inner body is aligned to the optimal blueprint, all of the actions on the outer form won't be as effective as they could be. They'll be just samskaric actions, and they'll lend themselves to volatility. That's why my wrist would flare up in the past whenever I ramped up my violin-playing: I was doing the best action I knew how to do, but on top of an inner misalignment. This year is the first time that the mudra I've created has held strong enough that I can play violin as much as I want without it impacting my shoulder and wrist in a negative way.

Get to Know the Topography of Your Particular Embodiment
Start by softening, without trying to hold yourself too much on the outside so that you can feel and see more clearly how your inner body moves. Notice (either by feeling while seated or standing, or by looking in a mirror) the following:

  1. If one side body (for this, the side body is the length from the waistline to the armpit) is longer or shorter. When the inner body is full and bright, the side bodies will lengthen so much that the shoulders will become more level across.
  2. If your chest is rotated to one side or the other. Look at the fullness of the chest (right below the collarbones) as indicators; if one side is more hollow, that means your chest is turned to that side. You can also feel the rotation of the inner body in cobra pose: keep both hip points on the floor (so that the rotation of the pelvis doesn't get involved) in a low cobra, and then lift up and twist your chest from one side to the other. In general, the side that's easier to twist to will be the side that your inner body is rotated toward.
  3. If the head of the arm bone is more forward in the shoulder socket on one side than the other. You'll have to square your chest to the front to see this clearly, as the rotation of the chest might mask the relationship between the arm bone and the shoulder socket.
One common pattern is for all three misalignments to be present on the same side: side body short, inner body turned to that side, and arm bone forward.

See what the pattern is for yourself, and these three marks will help you to know how to line up the inner body and the outer body in any pose.

Aligning the Inner Body
The first principle in Anusara Yoga is to Open to Grace, or an opening to receive yourself as the gift of grace. In the upper body, it includes a luminous expansion of the whole torso (sides, front and back, top and bottom) and a softening of the outer form. We call this "inner body bright, outer body soft." When opening the inner body to its fullness, you'll have to bring more awareness to lengthening the side body that tends to shorten, and to turning the chest to neutral in the front. Keeping that, let your outer form -- your skin, your muscles and bones -- release and be held on that brightness. You'll feel a dynamic alignment between inner and outer: this is a practice of mudra.

Once you align the inner body and allow the outer form to soften (like wax), all of the other actions you engage will map directly on to this deep imprint of yourself.

As you move through the sequence of asanas listed below, in every pose, first align the inner body, then the outer. Asymmetrical poses (especially twists) are fun, because on one side the inner body is moving with the outer body, and on the other side the two will be in a dynamic resistance.

One of the things that you'll notice when you first start working in this way is that it's very easy to move the outer form instead of the inner. Notice if, when you lengthen the sides of the torso, the trapezius muscles and levator scapulae engage to create the effect of "side bodies long". That's an outer action, rather than inner. Notice to, if you're spinning your chest to square off at the front by just turning your chest rather than moving the energy around the central axis of your core. For it to make mudra, the first principle must move from the inside out.

For every posture, expand your inner body fully, lengthening the side that needs more length, and turning the chest to the center. Once you have that, just soften and release into that place. Then engage muscle energy, to re-imprint on the outside what you've mapped on the inside. Notice how you'll have to do more muscle energy from the periphery to the core on the side where the arm bone tended to poke forward in order to find a place of balance.

  • Surya namaskar: The poses in this sequence are great for feeling and aligning the inner body. In caturanga, cobra and salabhasana variations, try lengthening both side bodies, and then turning (exaggeratedly) the inner body to the side it needs to go to. Keep that, and then with the action of muscular energy, get the upper arm bones to plug back into the shoulder socket. For most people, you'll have to do more Muscle Energy on the side that you're turning away from (as the turn will tend to bring the arm bone forward) -- but for everyone, just get both arm bones fully back while keeping the inner body aligned.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: In dog pose, often times you'll feel one arm bone dropping more toward the floor, and this can be a result either of not enough Muscle Energy through that arm, or it could be that the inner body is turned so that that side of the chest is pushed more forward (i.e. downward). Regardless, align the inside first (side bodies long, turn the chest to neutral) and then engage Muscular Energy on top of that inner alignment.
  • Standing poses: the asymmetrical standing poses are great for feeling the mudra between inner and outer forms.
  • Standing twists: This gets a little more complex, but remember, it's the same principles every time. When you're twisting to the side that your inner body is naturally rotated toward, you'll need to turn the inner body away from the twist, and then twist the outer body on top of that. When you're twisting to the side that your inner body is naturally rotated away from, the twist will bring you more to neutral. Still, you must align the inner body (turn the inner body into the twist) and then twist the outer body on top of that. Otherwise, your inner body will chase the outer body into the twist.
  • Inversions: Do you ever feel like your all of your weight falls to one side in handstand or forearm stand? That's probably related to the inner body collapsing to that side. Line things up on hands/forearms and knees first, getting more length on the side you need, and turning your chest to square. Then integrate the arm bone into the socket more on the side where the arm bone tends to poke forward. Keep that dynamic alignment while you go up.
  • Ustrasana: Try coming into the pose by first turning your inner body (and your outer body) to the side that brings it into alignment. Keep your pelvis squared straight ahead, and as you go into the backbend, keep turning to that side, bringing that hand to the ankle first. Once you're there, keep the inner body square and let gravity help you bring the other arm bone back to hold the foot.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: Go to the top of your head in preparation for wheel pose. There, align the inner body (side bodies long, turn), and then keeping the inner body aligned, draw Muscle Energy from the hands all the way up through the arms so both arm bones go back. Notice if when you do that, the muscular action turns your chest back to its natural samskara. The inner body must hold its alignment even as the outer form maps onto it. Once you have that, press up into the pose.
  • Scorpion: Now for fun, try this out in scorpion and see if it helps you to open up the backbend.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Spine's Serpentine Path

Teaching in Louisville, KY last weekend, I found myself practicing in front of a mirror for the first time in a long time. The mirror can be a useful teaching tool once in a while, and I had some insights into how to create a more fluid curve in the spine.

The spine is a pathway for the shushumna nadi, a current of energy that runs inside the vertebral column. In many traditions, this is the path of Kundalini, the serpent power coiled at the base of the spine that can be awakened and raised through a practice of yoga. In the Rajanaka tradition, Kundalini is already awake: your birth was the dynamic unfolding of Kundalini into the form of embodied power. So rather than trying to awaken Kundalini, yoga is to align to the empowered self. Enlightenment is not an attainment, it's a recognition.

The pathway of Kundalini, then, is a circuitry that you can create and empower, rather than a ladder that you must ascend. Sometimes you'll want to make the heroic leap from the mind back down to the heart, or from the heart to the throat (the place of self-expression), or from the waters of the belly to the root of yourself.

So, too, in working to align the spine.

In its optimal alignment, the spine normally has four curves: the tailbone tucks under (a kyphotic curve), the top of the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae draw in to the body (a lordotic curve), the thoracic spine is kyphotic and the cervical spine is lordotic.

In Stage 1 forward bends (where the hips are bent to just 90 degrees), the spine is in its neutral position and, in alignment, will have these four curves. And as you move from Stage 1 to full form forward bends, the entire spine should round at an even rate.

What I was noticing in the mirror in Louisville was that exactly the opposite was happening in my body, and this is common. Tight hamstrings will tend to pull the pelvis under when the legs are extended and the hips flexed, and this reverses the curve in the lumbar spine (the vertebrae will stick out). Even if the hamstrings are not tight, if the upper back is really mobile and moves toward a flat spine (rather than kyphosis), it will push the lumbar vertebrae out. This is particularly true in seated forward bends, where the pelvis and legs are all part of the foundation: the lower part of the spine gets more stuck, while the upper part, because it doesn't have the resistance of the floor, pushes in at a faster rate.

Take inventory:
Before doing full form forward bends, check in at Stage 1 to be sure that you can get all 4 curves in the spine. Try this first seated in upavista konasana, just to feel.

Notice what parts of the spine are sticking out and what parts are moving in to the body, and then see how that relates to the optimal curves of the spine. You don't need a mirror for this. Just run your fingers up your vertebrae from the top of the sacrum up towards your upper back.

Because of the reasons mentioned above, most people will find that the upper back is pushing in faster than the lower back, creating reverse curves in the lumbar and thoracic spine.

Connecting the Circuitry:
In order to line up the spine optimally in a neutral place and for forward bending, the strategy will be to stabilize the hyper-mobile part in order to gain access to a deeper opening in the part that is more stuck, like this:

  • Set up in Stage 1 of the forward bend
  • Back out of the hyper-mobile part of your spine by breathing and even rounding back. For most people, this will be the thoracic spine, but you'll see what it is for you.
  • Keeping that part stable (moving back), charge your inner thighs by hugging the legs to the midline and then turn the inner thighs in, back and apart (Inner Spiral). This action will draw the top of the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae into the body, creating a natural curve. If you still feel stuck in the lower back area, back off even more through the upper back -- you might have to lean back past 90 degrees in the pelvis to gain access to the action of the thighs.
  • Once the lumbar vertebrae have moved in to the body, draw your tailbone down and lift the spine up and out of the pelvis
  • In moving deeper into the forward bend, extend the whole spine evenly. Notice whether the neck or the upper back are moving faster into the forward bend than the lower back, and if so, back out there, re-anchor the inner thighs, and then extend again. You can use your fingertips on the floor in front of you pressing down to help move th mobile part of your spine back.
Use the principles outlined above to create a more even, fluid curve in the spine in these poses. If you have a mirror, use it to watch the curves (if not, you can just feel your vertebrae with your fingertips)
  • Cat/Cow
  • Downward-facing dog with the hands on the wall (L-pose): the upper back (and neck) will tend to be more mobile here, pressing toward the floor with gravity, to stabilize these areas by backing out of the pose and then move into the lower body.
  • Downward-facing dog
  • Prasarita padottanasana
  • Parsvakonasana: notice how if you lean forward in your upper body to get the thighs back, this is more form than action, and won't be very effective in getting curve in the lower back. Keep your upper back in line (even puff out through the back lungs), and then access your inner thighs and use them to create lumbar curve.
  • Parsvottanasana: start standing upright, and bring your spine just to horizontal first (this is stage 1); back out of the upper back until you can use your legs to draw the lower back into the body, then come into the forward bend. Use blocks for your hands, or bring your hands to a wall, if you need.
  • Prasarita padottanasana toward press handstand: I finally figured out that this is the key to pressing up into handstand. You have to move your spine from forward bend to neutral, and getting the low back to draw in and up is essential
  • Supta virasana: notice how the lower back here tends to be arched more than the rest; lift your pelvis up off the floor to extend the tailbone more and lift up through the kidney area so that the tailbone and upper back curves are kyphotic.
  • Upavista konasana: I don't recommend using padding under the pelvis to accommodate tight hamstrings in seated forward bends, because it tends to move the legs toward hyperextension. Try instead to just get Stage 1 upavista konasana, with natural curves in the spine. If your hamstrings are really tight, you may have to lean backwards quite a bit in the upper back, then use your legs strongly (hug the midline, inner spiral) to get the inner thighs to flow down, the pelvis to tip upright, and the lumbar vertebrae to draw in and up.
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana/krounchasana
  • Dandasana: For me, this is one of the most challenging poses of all. With the legs straight ahead, you don't have the space that upavista konasana affords, and with your pelvis and legs on the floor as part of the foundation, there's limited mobility. Work this one with the legs separated sitting bone distance apart, and put a block between your feet or your shins as resistance for hugging the midline. Then go through all of the steps above, leaning back as much as you need to in your upper back to make space to access your inner thighs.
  • Pascimottanasana: Once you're able to get natural curves in the spine in dandasana, come forward into pascimottanasana.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

5 Principles to Grow Your Experience From Inside Out

Spring finally seems to have hit New York, at least with enough sun and fair weather to turn people's moods on the streets to gaiety and delight. I found myself in Union Square on that first warm day, surrounded by happy New Yorkers soaking it in, and it was remarkable how much the outside can affect our spirit. And then, it's not so remarkable, because as yogis, we know that what we do with our outside (our physical form) can have a significant impact on how we feel on the inside. That's one reason people come to an asana practice in the first place: you move through some poses, and by the end of it, you feel different inside. This is a great gift of asana.

But yoga invites us to something more than just transforming ourselves from outside-in. It also posits that who we are on the inside can become manifest in everything we do, in all of the forms that we take. Of course, who we are on the inside is manifest in everything we do. It couldn't be otherwise. What makes something yoga, is that we act from a place of connection ("Act standing in yoga", Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita) to the subtle-most experience of ourselves. It's the difference between speaking or acting without reflection (and we all know when this happens, as it's usually followed by regret), and speaking or acting with a clear connection to what you want to create and offer of yourself.

I've been thinking about this using the model of the koshas, the five "sheaths" or five ways we experience ourselves as embodied beings. In my understanding, the koshas are not really separate layers, but rather different ways of accessing the same thing: our self. So when one of the koshas is affected, so are all the rest. The densest/grossest sheath is called the annamaya kosha, your "food body." It's the recognition that you literally are what you eat, you become everything you consume and ingest. It's the recognition that what you do on the outside will change your inner state. The subtle-most experience of yourself is what's called the anandamaya kosha, or your bliss body. It's the experience of yourself as pure delight, the experience that you are who you are just because.

The challenge of yoga is to grow yourself in both directions, from outside-in and inside-out, so that who you are on the outside is intimately connected (yoked) to who you are on the inside. And there's nothing like backbends to turn things inside-out, to make our heart our outer experession (think of the image of Hanuman, with his hands ripping open his heart to reveal Ram and Sita inside).

The principle of alignment that opens up the heart center is the shoulder loop, spanning from the upper palate to the bottom tips of the shoulder blades (the palate and heart focal points). But for the shoulder loop to be effective, it has to be established in yoga, in connection, especially with the head and neck.

Here are five principles that yoke the shoulders and neck in their fullest expression:

  1. Open to Grace: The experience of ananda expands the inner body fully, including a lengthening all the way up through the sides of the torso and throat.
  2. Muscle Energy: In the upper body, when we draw from the outside-in (periphery to core), the upper arm bones will move back plane of the body, more deeply into the shoulder sockets. A key aspect of muscle energy is to take the top of the throat back, lining up the neck/head with the spine, and toning the muscles on the back of the neck. The hyoid bone floats there, at the top of the throat, and through a series of muscles (it's involved in swallowing) connects all the way down to your belly. To line it up, think of the top of the throat moving back and up, as if it were smiling (and the notice if you smile when you do that.) When the hyoid bone is in alignment, you'll fell a natural tone and lift in the low belly as well as in the sternum. Although the muscles involved with the hyoid bone are not primary actors, the positioning of the hyoid bone can offer signifiers that the head/neck are yoked with the rest of your body.
  3. Shoulder Loop: This refinement begins at the soft palate and flows back toward the occiput and then down the back, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades forward through the heart focal point and lifting the front of the sternum and the chin. In addition to creating a lordotic curve in the neck, shoulder loop gets the trapezius muscles on the upper back to flow down (so they're not all bunched up around your neck). Even though the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades flow down the back with shoulder loop, the front of the chest and the tops of the arm bones continue to lift up and flow back. Shoulder Loop literally turns us inside-out, by bring the heart forward. Note that Shoulder Loop won't be very effective if the first two principles aren't established: we must act standing in yoga, from a place of deep connection, in order to make our outer form our truly reflect our inner-most self. If the head/neck are not in line with the spine (throat/hyoid back), and the back of the neck isn't toned, when the head tips back with shoulder loop, the back of the neck will just collapse and shorten.
  4. Skull Loop also starts at the soft palate and flows back, but then moves up the back of the skull, lengthening the back of the neck. When balanced with Shoulder Loop, it will bring the curve of the neck to it's natural alignment (lordotic curve with length).
  5. Organic Energy gives extension to all of this.
Practice with these 5 principles as focus:

Tadasana: go to a wall, with you heels and back against the wall. When you line up the upper body, the back of your skull will be up against the wall. Yes. All the way back there.

Lunges with cactus arms: I love the cactus arm variation, because it's simply easier to engage the upper arm bones to the back plane of the body with muscle energy. Once the throat is aligned (back), curl your head back and actively draw the trapezius muscles down the back and into the heart center to lift the chest.

Surya namaskar: practice keeping the neck/head in line with the spine as you move. It's interesting how when we engage the arm bones to the back plane of the body, the neck/head often poke forward, disconnecting from the core. Take the arm bones and the top of the throat back together, in order to move from a place of deep connection.

Standing poses: practice parsvakonasana, trikonasana, virabhadrasana 1, etc. starting with your hand(s) behind the base of your skull (at the occiput). Use this hand to provide active resistance for the shoulder loop, so the neck doesn't collapse back.

Handstand/Pinca mayurasana: look forward toward your fingertips while kicking up, to initiate the shoulder loop and engage the trapezius muscles up the back toward the ceiling.

Makarasana/Rajakapotasana: notice what happens as you take the head back to move toward the fullest expression of the pose. If the arm bones and neck aren't firmly established with muscle energy, the back of the neck can collapse and the upper arm bones may pop forward the deeper you try to go. Move from a place of connection.

Ekapadarajakaptoasana 1 (2, 3, 4): Again, the head/neck will tend to pull forward here. The backbend becomes some much easier if you get the head/neck in line with spine first, and then curl the head back for shoulder loop. Spinning the arm to bring it overhead comes only after all of this.

Sirsasana 2: this is a good one to feel the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades lifting up away from the palate focal point.

Setubandha: use the floor as resistance to create a deeper action of muscle energy and shoulder loop.

Urdhva dhanurasana: ever wonder why teachers tell you to look at the floor when you go up into wheel, rather than looking forward? By taking the head back (actively), it will help initiate the flow of shoulder loop, so the trapezius muscles lift up and curl the upper back more into the backbend. (Conversely, if you look forward or even up toward your chest, the trapezius muscles will tend to pull toward the neck, and misalign the shoulder blades off the back.) As you're going up into wheel, go first to the top of your head and pause there to establish the connections that you want to make. In particular, get the upper arm bones back by clawing the fingertips into the floor and drawing the muscle energy up through the arms. Then to tone the back of the neck and curl more in the upper back, drag your skull energetically back on the mat toward your feet (you'll be able to bring the chest more vertical). Then go up, looking at the floor toward your fingertips the whole way.

Sarvangasana: I know, we've been doing backbends, but these actions are great preparation for sarvangasana. Everything applies. The only thing I should add is that in this pose, none of the vertebrae should be touching the floor. Getting the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades to lift up toward your hips through shoulder loops is the way (and use blankets under your upper arms as needed to lift your pose and allow your head to tip back to the floor with more curve in the neck).

Seated poses: try out these principles in seated twists (like ardha matsyendrasana) and forward bends (like janu sirsasana). Notice if the head tends to lead the way (it often does). Just taking the top of the throat back to line up the spine, and then move from this place of connection.