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Thursday, May 15, 2008

What About the Breath?

I'm always a little mystified when a student asks me "Where's the breath in your classes?" OK, it's true that I don't instruct every breath in class, but to me the breath is everywhere. It is, quite simply, the gift of your own life, the gift of grace.

When you turn to the breath, you can't help but think how extraordinary, how rare, how precious this life really is. Of all the things that could have happened, the universe became YOU. Just as you are. Doesn't that make you shudder with awe, when you really think about it?

I think of life as a gift not because it was necessarily given by someone, but because it's just what was given as you. And it's a gift in the truest sense of the word because you need not pay any attention to it at all; there is no requirement to further engagement. As my teacher Douglas Brooks says, what makes something a gift is that "you didn't earn it, you don't deserve it, and you can't pay it back."

So what's left is yoga, the participation with and engagement of and savoring of life out of your own freedom (it's not required), simply for its own sake.

Pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, is the practice of engaging and participating in prana, the breath and the very essence of life. It is generally translated as "restraining" (yama) the "prana" (life force). The first question that comes to mind is, how could you control the energy of life itself? Instead, I like the translation Douglas Brooks once gave by dividing the word in a different place: "extending" (ayama) the prana.

Although prana refers to the pulsation and movement of life in everything, the breath is definitely our easiest access point to experiencing and participating in the life force. There are said to be five pranas in the body, and two of them correspond to the inhale and the exhale: prana vayu and apana vayu (which is which is a matter of some debate). In any case, these are the two that we can work with deliberately.

There are many wonderful practices of pranayama (see B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Pranayama for more on this), but what I'm going to offer here is how the practice and engagement of the breath works through an asana practice.


  • Open to Grace: Just by merely turning to the gift of ourselves, we are stepping into the current of grace. Even with a natural breath, you'll notice that the inhales expand your inner body (your energetic body) while at the same time drawing the outer body (your muscles and bones) more toward the core. And the exhales do just the opposite: the inner body contracts while the outer body extends. This is the natural pulse of life. When we engage this through ujjayi breath (toning the epiglottis to make a resonant breath), now we're stepping into yoga. (Ujjayi pranayama is the basic breath for an asana practice.) So the first principle of Anusara Yoga is not a passive principle (as Paul Muller-Ortega said at our teachers' gathering, it's not like you surrender yourself and say "Grace, come do me"); rather, it invites our active participation with the essence of life. The inner body naturally wants to expand on the inhales, so make space for it and it will rush in and fill you. This is what we call "inner body bright" and it includes a full expansion, from the pelvic floor all the way up through the dome of the palate. The sides of the torso, and front and back, all lift and swell with prana. This is followed by a release with gravity of the outer form on the exhale, which in Anusara terms is what we call "outer body soft." Inhale: inner body bright -- you make space for the prana to fill you. Exhale: outer body soft -- as you allow the outer form to melt and release onto that fullness.
  • Muscle Energy: So the inhale is naturally more muscular in the outer form and the exhale is more muscular on the inner body. So how do you code the breath? It depends on which perspective you want to take (and that choice depends on what you think will be the most empowering). In general, you can use the inhale to help engage active Muscle Energy of the outer body (particularly when coming out of twists, where it's important to stabilize the muscles around the sacrum). You can use the exhale to get more Muscle Energy in your inner body (as in going into forward bends and twists, when you want the inner form to contract).
  • Loops: The seven pairs of loops are really refinements of Muscle and Organic Energy, and the breath can be used to support the energetic flow of the loops if you think about it in this way. John Friend outlines this very clearly in the Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual. Basically, you'll inhale up the side of the loop that is more muscular or that's more opening to the inner body, and exhale down the side that is more organic or more softening. For example, the thigh loop would be Muscular on the front and Organic on the back, so you would inhale up the front of the thigh while exhaling down the back of the thigh loop. The Kidney Loop, is expansive in the back and softening on the front, so it would be supported by an inhale up the back and an exhale down the front. Stay with me, and you'll feel it when you practice in parsvottanasana below.
  • Inner Spiral: One of the features of the natural breath is that the inhale expands and dilates the pelvic floor, and so it naturally supports the action of Inner Spiral.
  • Outer Spiral: Similarly, the exhale naturally contracts the pelvic floor, and so it serves to support Outer Spiral.
  • Organic Energy: The exhale is naturally more expansive on the outer form, so you can use the exhales to support active Organic Energy, especially downward through the limbs. From the perspective of the inner body, the inhale will be more Organic or expansive, so you can use inhales to create active lengthening through the spine or extension away from gravity.

  • Sukhasana: Just feel the natural breath, and notice how it affects the inner and outer body. Then engage ujjayi breath by toning the epiglottis until you can hear your own breath. Ujjayi is a light engagement (remember, it's not to control the life force, but to participate in its flow), and shouldn't make you light-headed. It's the basic breath you'll keep going through your asana practice.
  • Hands and knees, then bring one cheek to the floor (place your arms wherever is comfortable, but keep your hips right over your knees). Feel the natural breath in your pelvis. In this form, it's easy to connect to how the inhales expand the pelvic floor, and how the exhales contract the pelvic floor.
  • Cat/Cow: This is a great place to experiment with the different perspectives on the breath. Usually, I teach this with the inhale to extend the spine (cow) and the exhale to round the back (cat). But you could easily do this with the breath oriented the other way. Try it with the exhale to extend and the inhale to contract. You may find that you have more of a connection to the back body that way.
  • Standing poses: Try a few simple standing poses following the breath in this way: Inhale to expand inner body, exhale to soften outer body. Inhale to engage the muscles to the core, exhale to extend the bones from the core. Inhale to inner spiral, turning the inner thighs in back and wide, exhale to engage more outer spiral, anchoring the tailbone down.
  • Parsvottanasana: Now work with the breath and the loops. Remember that the loops always initiate to the back plane first (and that's why you might find an extra breath between most loops). Full inhale, then exhale down the back of the ankle, inhale lift the toes (ankle loop). Exhale, then inhale up the back of the calf and exhale down the front of the shin (shin loop). Inhale, then exhale down the backs of the thighs and inhale up the front (thigh loop). Exhale to the back waistline and down through the sacrum and inhale up the front of the low belly (pelvic loop). Exhale, then inhale up the back waistline and exhale down the front ribs (kidney loop). Inhale, then exhale palate back and down the shoulder blades, inhale up the front of the chest (shoulder loop). Exhale, then inhale up the back of the skull and exhale down the front of the face (skull loop). Got that?
  • Seated twist (choose something simple, like twisted sukhasana, or ardha matsyendrasana): The key to using the breath while twisting is to inhale to lengthen the spine (the inhale supports that inner body bright) and exhale into the twist (the inner body contracts on the exhale, making it easier to twist the organs). When you come out of the pose, use an inhale to get more Muscle Energy to help stabilize the sacrum.
  • Seated forward bends: Just like in the twists, the inhale can be used to lengthen the spine, and the exhales to soften more deeply into the pose.
  • Pranayama: I love doing pranayama after an asana practice, because the support structure and vessel for a deepening engagement with the breath is already there.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Working the Butt

How often have you been told in yoga class to "soften your buttocks" and "let them hang like ripe melons" and just generally to take them out of play?

Probably as many times as my teacher Douglas Brooks has reminded me that everything you have, you need (and conversely, everything you need, you already have). Everything you've been given is your potential asset, so why not use it?

I'd like to dispel the myth that you do not use your butt in yoga. USE YOUR BUTT.

Seriously. The butt muscles are central to balancing, stabilizing and opening the hip joints.

However, the butt muscles (in particular gluteus maximus and the major lateral rotators like piriformis) tend to be very strong and can very easily over-ride the strength of the adductors (your inner thighs). If this happens, the thigh bones will push forward in the hip sockets, causing the adductors and psoas to tighten and the lower back to flatten, all of which contributes to lower back problems and tight hips.

The key to working with the butt muscles, to making them your asset rather than a liability, is to use them in the context of a balanced relationship with the adductors. This is true about anything that you've been given: the value of something is determined by the context of its relationships. (Douglas likes to say "inside it's dirt, outside it's soil"; or there's the more common adage "a rose in a cornfield is just a weed.")

Here's how you can create balanced relationships in the pelvis:

  • Open to Grace is the radical affirmation that everything you have is your potential asset. When you start there, in the physical form there will be a natural softening and release with gravity.
  • Muscular Energy is the engagement of all of your assets. All of them. For the hips, it's important to tone especially the upper inner thighs (adductors) and the outer hips.
  • Inner Spiral turns the inner thighs in, back and apart (this is achieved by the strength of the adductors) and serves to set the femur head into the acetabulum (hip socket). With Inner Spiral, the sitting bones widen, and the buttocks muscles soften their grip. In general, the back leg/hip in asymmetrical poses will need more Inner Spiral.
  • Outer Spiral initiates from the action of the tailbone scooping under, but it also includes a wrapping of the outer hips toward the back plane of the body. This involves the strong action of the lateral rotators of the hip, including piriformis, gluteus maximus, and several other smaller rotators. When you engage Outer Spiral, make sure that the action of the butt muscles doesn't override the power of the inner thighs moving back, which was established with Inner Spiral. In fact, you'll probably feel that the inner thighs have to work even more to keep the energetic flow back as you add the action of Outer Spiral. In general, the front leg/hip will need more Outer Spiral.
  • Organic Energy creates space in the joints by a powerful extension from the focal point toward the the periphery. When the pelvis is the focal point (as it is for most of the practice we'll do here), the pelvic bones and tailbone move downward along the vector of the legs toward the earth, and the lower back and low belly will lift upward through the torso. Gluteus medius is one of the key muscles involved in the rooting action of Organic Energy, and it creates enormous space and stability in the hip, especially when you're balancing on one leg.
Before you start working with these principles in practice, take some time to get to know your butt muscles:

Gluteus maximus
is the largest butt muscle (in fact, it's the biggest muscle in your body), spanning from the side of the sacrum and ilium to the femur. It's primary function is to act as an extensor of the hip, but it also laterally rotates (turns out) the hip in extension. This is one reason the back leg in most poses tends to have too much outer spiral. If your leg is fixed, gluteus maximus serves to scoop the pelvis under (retroversion). To feel its engagement, standing in tadasana holding your buttocks and stretch one leg back behind you, extending the hip. You'll feel the gluteus maximus fire on that leg. Now try standing in tadasana and scooping your pelvis under. You'll feel both buttocks engage.

Gluteus medius
is located on the outer hip, running from the outer upper hip down to the greater trochanter of the thigh bone. It's primary role is in abduction of the hip, moving the leg away from the midline by drawing the greater trochanter toward the top of the hip. It also serves to stabilize the pelvis when you're balancing on one leg (including when walking). To feel it, try standing in tadasana with both hands on your outer hips. Lift one leg straight out to the side to feel gluteus medius do the lifting. Interestingly, gluteus medius will also fire on the standing leg, to steady the balance by rooting downward into the earth.

Piriformis and those other lateral rotators:
There's a group of six deep hip muscles that all contribute to lateral/external rotation the hip. The main one to note among these is the piriformis, will contract (and spasm) in an attempt to stabilize the hip when the inner thigh/outer hip team is not doing its job. Piriformis happens to sit right on top of the sciatic nerve, and so when it's tight it can cause a shooting nerve pain down the leg (also known as piriformis syndrome), and due to its connection to the sacrum, it can also pull on the sacrum to jam the sacro-iliac joint. I have a hard time actually feeling these muscles engage; rather, I feel them best when they're being stretched in hip openers, like pigeon pose. However, you will only feel them stretch if you get the inner thighs back and wide first, and maintain that while adding Outer Spiral.

  • Tadasana: Use a block between your inner thighs to feel the adductors fire and turn in, back and wide. (If you tend to hyperextend in the knees, begin with bent knees to gain greater access to the inner thighs, and then straight the legs as you add the Outer Spiral.) Once you've balanced the spirals, root down organically from the pelvis through the feet. Notice how the gluteus medius (outer hip) fires to assist in this action. When it does, you'll feel a natural spaciousness and lift up out of the pelvis.
  • Parsvottanasana: Set up in the pose and just feel. On the back leg side, the thigh and outer hip will tend to rotate outward, while the front naturally turns more inward with the hip jutting out to the side. This is common for all asymmetrical poses: so the back leg will need more Inner Spiral to find balance, and the front leg will need more Outer Spiral and Organic Energy. (Still, remember that both sides always do all principles.) Once you have the pose set up, with the inner thighs flowing back, add a strong Outer Spiral by wrapping the hips around and under, as much as you can without losing the action of the inner thighs. Then press from your pelvic bones down through your legs into the floor so much that you could lift your hands off the floor (and why not? lift them up!). You'll feel gluteus medius fire, especially on the front leg, to stabilize you here, and this will create a lot of space in the pelvis. Then place your hands down on fingertips again while keeping that much rooting action through the legs.
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana: Start with an easy variation, just bringing one leg up with the knee bent and holding the front of the knee with both hands. With the legs strong and the inner thighs pressing back, now use your butt muscles to anchor the pelvis more. Especially work the gluteus medius on that standing leg, extending from the outer hip all the way down into the heel, and you'll get a simultaneous lift up out of the pelvis. Hold this pose on each side until you feel that outer hip muscle start to tire. You can work this in vrksasana and the other variations of UHP as well.
  • Trikonasana: Like most asymmetrical poses, the front hip in trikonasana tends to get bound up. Try the pose with your bottom hand up on a block, so you have extra room to create good action through the front leg. Once you set up the legs with good Muscle Energy and Inner Spiral, activate your butt muscles to draw the front hip under more. This will clear space in the hip joint. Then extend organically from the pelvis through the legs into the earth, using gluteus medius in particular to root more down into the front leg. Remove the block when your front hip feels spacious enough to do so.
  • Ardha chandrasana: As a standing balance, this is a great pose to work on both gluteus maximus and medius. Gluteus maximus (and the other lateral rotators) will provide a wrapping energy from the outer front hip toward the midline and under, while gluteus medius gives you the extension downward out of the hip that you need to avoid collapsing the pelvis onto the thigh bone. If you have a practice buddy, a nice assist to help feel this is to have them press downward on your outer top hip, so that you get more rooted into the floor, and as you get more rooted, lift back up into their hand.
  • Virabhadrasana 3 and Urdhva prasarita ekapadasana (aka standing splits): These poses are fun, as they are great ways to build the gluteus maximus (back leg) while strengthening gluteus medius (standing leg). Start in tadasana with hands on your hips, and with both feet on the floor just shift your weight over to your right foot. You'll feel the butt muscles on the right side fire in order to bear weight (kind of like when you're riding the subway and have nothing to hold on to). Even before lifting the left foot off the floor, extend organically downward from the pelvis into the standing foot (that's your outer hip, gluteus medius, again), to make space in that hip. Then start to kick the left leg back toward Vira 3; gluteus maximus, as a hip extensor, will come into play here. The inner thigh on that back leg will have to work strongly to balance the lateral rotation that comes along with the firing of gluteus maximus. Hold Vira 3 for a few breaths, and then tip all the way forward to standing splits. Again, balance the action between the inner thigh lifting and the butt muscles working on the back leg, while extending fully downward out of the hip in the front leg.
  • Spastic Pose (we need a name for this one): Start in uttanasana holding the big toes in yogic toe lock (first two fingers around the toe, thumb pressing into the floor). Engage the legs, especially by hugging the midline, and then widen the inner thighs back and apart. Shift your weight onto one foot as you lift the other leg straight out to the side. Gluteus medius, as an abductor, gets a workout on the lifted leg, while, as a stabilizer, gets a workout on the standing leg. If it's weak, you'll see why this one was nicknamed "spastic pose."
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana: The twisted poses require a lot of strength in the butt muscles to keep the hips squared to the front. The lift of the inner back thigh, and the action of gluteus maximus on that back leg as you move into the twist) will help keep the back hip from dropping. On the front leg side, use your butt muscles to pull the outer hip back and under, and to extend more through the legs.
  • Hanumanasana: Just try it! After all you've done already, this should be feeling pretty good.
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana 1 (pigeon prep): Finally, we get to stretch those muscles! In all of the "hip openers" (where the hip is in lateral rotation and flexion), the butt muscles will be involved. However, they won't get their optimal stretch if the inner thighs are not turning in, back and wide. Try pigeon prep pose first with a narrow angle on the front knee and the foot pointed, as this will give you a greater access to Inner Spiral. They go to the more advanced variation, with the front shin parallel to the front of your mat, foot flexed. This is a much deeper hip stretch, and it's also harder to keep the inner thighs flowing back, so find the place of balance for yourself.
  • Setubandha: This is one pose where, early on, I was told that you're supposed to let your buttocks relax, and I followed that instruction faithfully for some time. Then one day I realized that that didn't feel very good. Just think about it: if you're butt is hanging in this pose, it is going to pull on your lower back. The thing is, with backbends, the legs naturally tend to rotate outward, jamming the thighs forward and, ultimately, compressing the lower back. So instead, get your inner thighs toned and flowing back (using a block between your upper inner thighs will help create that awareness), and then activate those butt muscles, extending them out toward your knees without over-riding the power of the inner thighs. This will create tremendous freedom in the lower back.
  • Ardha matsyendrasana (and other seated twists): Because the seated twists give you the floor as feedback for the action of the hips, they're a great place to explore working the butt. In particular, the front hip (the side to which you are twisting) will tend to lift off the floor if the gluteus medius and the other butt muscles aren't working to create Outer Spiral and Organic Energy. Really tack that hip down to lengthen up and out of the pelvis and take a twist. Try also gomukhasana, with a twist to the top leg side. The form of this pose is hyper-stable in the pelvis, and so you will really feel that outer hip open.
  • Baddha konasana (and other seated hip openers): For the longest time, I practiced these poses with such a strong emphasis on Inner Spiral that I forgot about the other principles, and the poses only opened so much. For the hips to open effectively and have their greatest range of motion, the thigh bones must set back into the hip sockets, and Inner Spiral (coupled with Muscle Energy) creates that alignment. However, if you stop at Inner Spiral, you'll be missing the expanding qualities of Outer Spiral (after all, these are hip openers) and Organic Energy. In fact, the hip flexors can end up getting tighter from doing hip openers if you don't move beyond Inner Spiral, because the hips will tend to collapse onto the thighs. So, get everything set up with strong Muscle Energy and the inner thighs flowing back (down), then strongly open the hips using your butt muscles to create Outer Spiral and Organic Energy. In the seated poses, it's easy to monitor whether the butt muscles overpower the inner thighs, as you can see the flow of energy in your legs. Agni stambasana (fire logs pose, or "ankle-to-knee") is another great hip opener for this.