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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.