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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Grace Holds Everything

As the winter chill set in in New York, I decided to do everything in my life that felt nourishing and nurturing, and that included in my yoga practice. Rather than pushing myself toward my outer limits, I turned inward and just met with the breath in a very simple practice. What could be more nourishing than prana, the very life force that is breathing me?

I discovered that all of the principles of our practice are contained in the way the natural breath flows. And then I thought, how could it be otherwise? If we start from the premise (as we do in the Tantric worldview) that we are born perfect, with everything we need inside, how could the principles of alignment come from anywhere outside our very natural experience? And so the first principle in Anusara Yoga, what we call Opening to Grace, is the way in which we turn to the grace that is present as our very self, as our very life, and as our very breath.

On a physical level, Opening to Grace involves an expansion of the inner/energetic body, and a release of the outer form (often shorthanded as "inner body bright, outer body soft"). When we start from a place and perspective of fullness, then we will naturally soften rather than grasp. What's amazing is that this is what the breath is already doing, as us, anyway. When we do yoga, we align to the yoga that is already doing us.

Try this: Take a nice seat and tune in to your natural breath. You'll feel that with each inhale, the inner body naturally expands, and that with each exhale, the other body naturally softens and releases. Now begin ujjayi pranayama by toning the back of the throat. With ujjayi, you can create a deeper engagement and alignment with what is already your ordinary, everyday experience. With each inhale, actively expand the inner body from the pelvic floor all the way up to the dome of the palate. This expansion includes a fullness to the back and sides as much as a lift in the front. With each exhale, keep the fullness of the inside and let the outer form melt, as the pelvis and legs release downward.

So the breath holds inner body bright and outer body soft, the physical way that Opening to Grace manifests in the body. But the natural breath also holds all of the seeds of the other principles as well.

Muscle and Organic Energy:
Go back to your seat, and again focus on the natural breath. See how with each inhale, as the inner body expand, the outer body hugs in to meet it. You'll feel this especially around the rib cage because of the expansion of the lungs, but it is true for the whole body. The inhales already create a Muscle Energy to the core. Now watch the exhales and notice how with each exhale, the outer body extends outward. In this way, the exhales hold the expansive freedom of Organic Energy.

It gets better. When we align to what grace is already doing as us, in the form of our breath, bringing our awareness there and magnifying the experience, we'll also find the seeds of the spirals of the legs.

Inner and Outer Spiral
In your seat, bring your hands to your waistline so that your index fingers wrap around your lower ribs and the thumbs are on your back ribs. With each inhale, as you hug gently in with your hands (outer body contracts), expand the inner body so that the sides of the waistline widen laterally, all the way up through the ribs. This is similar to the widening component of Inner Spiral, and so you can align with the way the natural breath flows to use inhales to create more Inner Spiral. With each exhale, the pelvic floor naturally contracts, and hence the exhales will support Outer Spiral.

As you put this into practice, it's easiest to feel the breath with one principle at a time, so try going through some basic poses with several breaths in each pose, as follows:

  • Inhale: expand and lengthen inner body
  • Exhale: allow the outer body to release with gravity, without losing the lift on the inside
  • Inhale: engage the muscles to the bones, toward the midline, and toward the core
  • Exhale: extend from the core (focal point) in all directions
  • Inhale: as the muscles hug in, widen your waistline all the way up through the ribs
  • Exhale: keeping the width, extend down through the tailbone
  • Inhale: engage the muscles in
  • Exhale: extend from the core
Try this in the following sequence:
  • Uttanasana
  • Parsvottanasana
  • High lunge
  • Anjaneyasana
  • Downward-facing dog
  • Surya namaskar
Once you have a sense of how the breath connects to action, try working the principles simultaneously, with each inhale and each exhale, as follows in a few standing poses:
  • Inhale: lift up into the pose
  • Exhale: allow the pelvis and legs to release down with gravity
  • Inhale: as you expand the inner body, embrace the outer form concentrically around your core and simultaneously widen back into that embrace through the lower back
  • Exhale: scoop your tailbone under as you extend down and out through the pelvis and legs and up through the spine
Play with the simultaneity in these poses, as we move toward backbends:
  • Anjaneyasana
  • Virabhadrasana 1
  • Parsvottanasana
  • Parivrtta Parsvakonasana
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana
  • Pigeon pose with a thigh stretch
  • Anjaneyasana with a thigh stretch
  • Setubandha
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: in these backbends, focus on simultaneously hugging the outer form to the midline as you widen from the spine laterally, especially around the lower back.
A note on hip openers: if you follow the way the breath unfolds in your body, it will naturally create space and release in the hip flexors. Pay attention to this in pigeon pose as a starting place. Get as much extension and brightness on the inside as you can, taking several rounds of breath. With each inhale, create that length and fullness, especially into the back body, and with each exhale, allow the pelvis to descend with gravity WITHOUT collapsing the inner body. In this way, the upper part of the psoas muscle (which goes all the way up to T12, the lowest thoracic vertebra) will extend one way, while the lower part of the psoas (at the lesser trochanter of the thighbone) will extend the other way. It's a way of giving traction to the muscle: by fixing the upper part, the lower part can descend with gravity.

Work with this idea in a few seated poses. In the seated poses, start with the fingertips behind your pelvis and use them to support the inner expansion that comes with the inhale (so much that the pelvis lifts off the floor). Then with your exhale, allow the pelvis and legs to settle again with gravity, without compromising the extension through the upper body.
  • Pigeon poses
  • Baddha konasana
  • Upavista konasana