"He never grew up, and he never stopped growing."
Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away a couple of weeks ago, left this as his epitaph. I hadn't known much about Clarke (although I had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-wrote) until I read this line in the Economist's tribute to him, but I resonated with this quote, as it holds both a deep sense of play and a deep desire to expand to the boundary of possibility.
Never grow up: to me, it means being willing to see the world anew, without the jadedness that can often come along with adult consciousness.
Never stop growing: the world offers itself to us as expansive possibility. There is always more to reality than our experience of it.
How do we access the more that's there? Yoga offers us two strategies. The first, is to bring ourselves with the fresh eyes of one who has never grown up, to be able to look at the utterly familiar and see it anew. And what is more familiar than the self? My teacher Douglas Brooks once said that every yogic endeavor is an inquiry into the self (or something to that effect). Are you willing to see yourself in ways you've not yet imagined?
The other strategy is to expand to the boundaries of possibility, to the very edges where the known pushes up against the unknown, and to take what is unfamiliar territory and make it our own.
Recently, I was given the great gift of seeing familiar in a totally new light by studying with Ross Rayburn, a Certified Anusara Teacher who was visiting New York. We were focusing on something I'd been practicing for years, and sure enough, Ross articulated it in a way that made me look all over again, and suddenly the familiar actions of shins-in-thighs-out gained a whole new depth. So much so that we had to discuss it again, over brunch, the next day.
What Ross explored (and I've spent the last few weeks exploring) was how the kneecaps have a kind of inner alignment that must be set before doing the actions of hugging the shins to the midline (part of Muscle Energy) and widening the inner thighs (part of Inner Spiral). Open to Grace. It comes first every time!
What I heard from Ross that radically revamped the familiar was the idea that when you set the foundation of a pose, there are three points that must line up: the 2nd toe mound, the middle of the ankle, and the center of the kneecap. Oftentimes, the kneecap will roll in or out, and if it isn't set straight ahead, then the actions of Muscle Energy and Inner Spiral will not have their full effect.
So it's back to basics this week, to line up the foundation up through the kneecap and then keep it straight ahead as we add the other principles. When this happens, the hamstrings will track properly (as will the hip flexors and the ligaments around the knee), and you'll explore boundaries that you may not have seen before!
It goes like this:
- Open to Grace: the first principle includes an alignment of the foundation, and even if you know what's going on with your foundation, take the opportunity to see it anew. There's always more there. When the feet are part of the foundation, that means the second toe mound, the middle of the ankle and the middle of the kneecap will all be in a straight line.
- Muscle Energy: for this week, focus on the second component of Muscle Energy, which is hugging to the midline. This creates a tone in the outer shins as well as the inner thighs, and it will provide the steady resistance for Inner Spiral to happen. Watch that when you hug the midline the kneecaps don't knock in; they should stay straight ahead with your feet.
- Inner Spiral turns the inner thighs in, back and wide. When the inseams of the legs turn inward, however, watch that the knees don't also roll in. If they do, you won't really be getting the spiraling effect of this principle (which helps to line up the hamstrings, hip flexors, and knees). I love this principle because it really speaks to pushing the boundaries of our experience.
- Outer Spiral balances Inner Spiral, so that the outer seams of the legs move backward. In particular, for the health of the hamstrings, this action seals the hamstring attachments at the sitting bones, keeping them from getting overstretched.
- Organic Energy adds length and space to the whole pose.
- Uttanasana: first just come into this pose with your feet lined up straight ahead. Without adjusting your knees, notice if they turn inward or outward or face straight ahead in line with the second toe mound and center of the ankle. Whatever the pattern is, it will probably be repeated in most poses, so make a note of which knee does what, and then incorporate aligning the knees into setting the foundation in every pose.
- Runner's stretch (ardha hanumanasana): on the front leg, line up the foundation and kneecap, and then add the other principles, emphasizing the widening component of Inner Spiral, without losing the foundational alignment.
- Uttanasana: line up the knees with your feet, then use your hands to engage Muscle Energy to the midline, then add Inner Spiral to widen the legs against the boundary of the shins.
- Parsvottanasana/Virabhadrasana 1: on the back leg side, the kneecap often tends to roll inward. So track it first with your foot, then add the other principles. Watch that it doesn't roll in again when you Inner Spiral.
- Uttanasana: hold your lower legs steady with your muscles while using your hands behind your legs to hold all three hamstrings on each side and widen them into the resistance of the lower legs.
- Parivrtta parsvakonasana: twists, because they require a strong focus on hugging the midline and the widening aspect of Inner Spiral, are a great way to align the hamstrings so that they will open more easily in forward bends. Watch the kneecap on the front leg. It will probably tend to follow its pattern of rolling in or out, so keep it straight ahead.
- Vrksasana/Utthita hasta padangustasana: the standing balances are a good place to monitor the way each leg is tracking.
- Thigh stretches: they're all great for this. Just keep the knee in the midline as you go!
- Virasana/Supta virasana: Look at your kneecaps when you sit back in virasana, noticing if one knocks in or out (they'll probably follow the pattern you saw in uttanasana). Then come back out of the pose, and before you sit down, track the three points of the foundation. Keep that steady, have a seat, and then engage the other actions.
- Upavista konasana