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Friday, April 3, 2009

There's As Much World There as You Create

Last week I woke up with a crick in my neck, and as the day wore on it got worse and worse until I couldn't turn my head and my whole right arm was throbbing. I thought to myself, "No big deal. I know Anusara Yoga therapeutics. I can deal with this." And so when I got home I spent a couple of hours doing every therapeutic exercise for the shoulders and neck that I could think of, but nothing seemed to help. Finally I just had to sleep, and when I woke up the next day, I was ready for a fresh perspective.

When I looked in the mirror and took a step back to see my whole self, rather than focusing on the source of the pain, it became clear that the major misalignment wasn't in my neck or shoulders it all: it was in my right side waistline, which was squished to the midline. Within a few minutes of opening up the side waistline with the principles below, my neck cleared. The area of the waistline, which includes the psoas and quadratus lumborum, is a critical connecting point in the body, as it yokes upper/lower and front/back bodies and supports the vital organs when it's in healthy alignment.

This was such an important lesson for me, to be reminded that nothing ever exists or happens in isolation. Every event, every particular experience, every individual, is always connected to something greater than itself. But if we don't take a step back to see the connections that are there beyond what's right in front of us, we may not have the most informed view, and we may miss what's really important.

Yoga is all about making those connections (literally "yoking" yourself) in the remembrance that everything happens in the context of something more than just itself. The connections are vast and infinite (this is what we mean by karma), but in a certain sense there's as much connection and meaning there as you choose to make. The capacity to see beyond more than what's just right in front of you opens the gateway to an empowered and rich experience of the world. You only experience as much world as you are capable of creating.

All of the principles of alignment used in Anusara Yoga are part of a system (just like the body) that is most effective when treated as a system, as connected principles rather than in isolation. That's why it's so importnat to always begin with Opening to Grace (where you can see the connections) and then build through each principle.

  • Open to Grace: This first principle invites us to the remembrance that you are never in isolation, that you are always connected to something greater than yourself, even if you don't see the connections at first. In the physical body, there's an inner expansion and an outer softness. Opening to Grace also implies taking a step back (i.e., backing out of a pose) so you can get a broader perspective to see what more is there.
  • Muscle Energy is how we connect all of the parts of our physical form. It helps us to feel the self as an integrated whole, rather than isolated body parts. In particular for opening up the psoas and quadratus lumborum (QL), we'll focus on engaging Muscle Energy to the vertical midline of the body.
  • Inner Spiral: When you step into the process of yoga by making the connections of Muscle Energy, it will open a gateway into an expanded vision and experience through Inner Spiral. This principle draws the inseams of the legs and pelvis in, back and wide as it moves up the legs from the feet all the way to the waistline. The widening effect of Inner Spiral is greatest at the top, at the waistline area, where it broadens the psoas muscle (which connects to all of the lumbar vertebrae) and the QL (which rans from the top of the pelvis to the 12th rib, connecting to all of the lumbar vertebrae along the way). When these two muscles are aligned, they support a healthy lower back, diaphragm, and shoulders and neck.
  • Outer Spiral: The broad, expanded vision of Inner Spiral creates room for the lengthening of the tailbone and grounding of the outer hips that comes with Outer Spiral.
  • Organic Energy reconnects all of the parts of the body after the more focused refinements of the spirals. It roots us into the earth (always a good reminder of how we are held in something greater than just ourselves) while extending the body. When the pelvis is the focal point (as it is in most of the poses in this practice), Organic Energy anchors the pelvic bones and leg bones down into the earth, while creating a lift up out of the pelvis through the torso. This split of energy creates length in the psoas and the QL (one part of the muscle moves down while the other part of the muscle moves up).
  • Tadasana (side stretch): because the QL is a side-bending muscle, in can be effectively stretched and opened by side-stretching, or crescenting the side body. In tadasana, bring both arms overhead and hold your right wrist with your left hand. Engage the legs and press the inner upper thighs in, back and wide. Then root through the tailbone and pelvis as you stretch up through your torso, extending to the left side. As you stretch, keep the musclular engagement to the midline in particular, and then widen from the midline (spine) laterally through the inner thigh, the inner pelvis, and waistline, all the way up through the lower ribs. Do both sides
  • Adho mukha svanasana twist: In downward-facing dog, you can get a nice side stretch by swivelling your feet (without picking them up off the floor) to the right so that the left knee bends and crosses in front of the right leg, as both heels ground to the floor. As you do this, the right hip will lift up to the sky. Once you have the feet turned and planted into the earth, engage the legs to the midline again and then widen the right side of your body, from the inner thigh all the way up through the hip and waistline. Then swivel the feet to the other side.
  • Lunge (with side stretch): Come to a high lunge, with both hands a the hips and the back knee off the floor. Start by expanding the inner body with your breath, lifting the sides, front and back of your torso together. Then engage the legs. The back leg, in all asymmetrical poses, will generally need more Muscle Energy and more Inner Spiral than the front to create balance, so pay particular attention to spreading the little toes on the back leg side and straightening the leg fully. Keeping the legs strong, press down through the mound of the back big toe and draw up through the inner heel to initiate Inner Spiral up through the leg into the waistline. Lift your back arm to the sky, and then take a side stretch over the front leg, focusing on the widening of the back leg side.
  • Surya namaskar (with twisted cobra): Move through surya namaskar a few rounds. In cobra pose, anchor the pelvis to the floor and sweep your legs to the midline, espeically by spreading the pinky toes to the floor and hugging the outer ankles in. Then twist and look over your right shoulder to the right leg: keep the legs hugging the midline and then widen the whole left side of your body (now the back leg) to the left. Keeping that space, come back to the center and twist the other way.
  • Parsvakonasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: In these lateral standing poses, you can get a nice opening through the psoas and QL in the back leg side. Start parsvakonasana in the prep form of the pose, with the front arm resting on the knee. Just backing out of the pose like this will give you a greater perspective. Then engage the legs, especially focusing on the connection of the outer back shin hugging to the midline. This will also tone the inner back thigh. When you add Inner Spiral, widen the thigh, hip and waistline (all the way up to the lower ribs) to the sky. Then anchor the tailbone and pelvic bones down as you stretch through your spine. Notice how the alignment of the back leg directly effects the alignment of the front. It's a pretty good rule of thumb that whenever you feel stuck in the front hip, it's connected to a collapse or misalignment in the back leg, which doesn't allow space for the front hip to open.
  • Parighasana: This is one of the few classical yoga poses that provides a specific stretch for the QL.
  • Parsvottanasana: Come high up on fingertips or on blocks here to make space and open to a wider vision. The lift your toes and power up the legs. To feel more Inner Spiral on the back leg side, as you spin the leg in, back and wide, lean to the back leg side (so you're heavier on that foot and that hand). This will really help you get the width up through the waistline. Now keep your weight more to the back leg side as you spin your lower belly square over the front leg.Reconnect all the parts through Organic Energy, pushing down through the pelvis and legs into the earth, and lengthening the spine.
  • Virabhadrasana 1: In the front plane poses, it's easy to feel how the back hip narrows to the midline, and this both reflects and will cause a misalignment in the psoas and QL complex. Start with both hands on the front thigh and bow forward, lifting the waistline up; backing off like this is part of Opening to Grace, and it allows you to see the bigger connections. Now lift the toes and spread the pinky toes, with a focus on the back leg, until you feel the outer upper shin hug to the midline and the inner up thigh fire. Now use the strength of the inner back thigh to lift and widen the leg, hip and waistline over to the back leg side. With that, turn your belly square toward the front leg side. Keeping the width on the back leg and waistline, root down through the tailbone and legs to rise fully up into the pose.
  • Brigid's Cross: A key focus in all twisting poses is to hug the midline, connecting all of the parts of the body into the experience of the whole. This will help stabilize the sacro-iliac joints, which can otherwise get knocked out of alignment in the twist. Because the twists have such a powerful connection to the midline, they will also open the gateway to widening through the lower body. Try Brigid's Cross (it's like parivrtta trikonasana on the floor, with the front hip down and the fingertips supporting the upper body as it twists) with the back foot off the floor in line with the pelvis. Spread the little toes and hug the leg energetically toward the midline (that's down toward the floor) and then with your breath broaden the inner back thigh and the waistline to the sky to deepen the twist.
  • Pigeon pose (with thigh stretch): The actions are the same here, although because of the backbend I think it's harder to get the hips and lower belly square to the front and the lift out of the back body. From the inner back thigh lifting, broaden the back thigh and waistline so much that your hip literally moves to the side to meet your outer foot. And then keep that relationship as you turn your belly over the front leg and extend.
  • Runner's stretch (with twist): In this runner's stretch, bring your back hand across to the outer front shin, where it can serve as a reminder of a deeper connection in the legs to the midline. The twist will help you to feel a widening in the pelvis and waistline, and it also serves to align the fibers of the hamstrings on the front leg.
  • Anjaneyasana (with thigh stretch): Same actions as pigion thigh stretch. Make sure the waistline isn't collapsing forward, but rather is moving back, toward that wider vision.
  • Hanumanasana: It seems like I've been working on this pose for years (I have), and for the longest time I thought it was my tight hamstrings that were in the way. Sure enough, I wasn't seeing the important connection that the alignment of the back leg has to the opening of the front leg. The more you can hold the midline and widen the back leg side, the more the front leg will descent. Try bringing both hands to the inside of the front leg, so that you can lean your weight to the back leg side and thereby create more of the widening of Inner Spiral. Make sure that the back shin stays toned to the midline (Inner Spiral isn't really effective if it's not connected to Muscle Energy), and then widen, all the way up through the waistline. Keep your weight to the back leg side as you turn your belly over the front leg, and see if it opens up a little more
The following sequence is just for fun, if you want to continue to play with these principles in more advanced asanas:
  • Parsvakonasana (with bind)
  • Visvamittrasana
  • Triangmukhapadapascimottanasana, krounchasana:
  • Surya yantrasana
  • Janu sirsasana
  • Parivrtta janu sirsasana