Last week, I went to the High-Line for the first time since it re-opened as a public space, and I was enchanted.
For those of you who are not New Yorkers (or who are New Yorkers but haven't been out there yet), the High Line is an 8-block-long urban paradise running a few stories above 10th Avenue. Years ago, it was a railroad track that connected Penn Station to the docks, but it fell into disuse as the city grew up, and over many years was just allowed to lay fallow. During that time, nature took over and it turned into a great wilderness above the city, with wildflowers and grasses and trees sprouting up.
Urban planners have now turned this wilderness into one of the most ambitious, varied and forward-looking gardens in the country, with more than 200 species of plant life, surprising views of the city and the water, bees doing their work, and just a wonderful time.
While I was up there, it got me thinking about how the process of seeding, nourishment, growth and flowering (a.k.a. the process of yoga) is a completely natural process. Even without our participation, it's remarkable how much can happen: every experience we have plants a seed in our consciousness, and some of these seeds sprout and grow and flower, and others lay fallow, and some lay fallow maybe for years and then sprout in unexpected places.
However, without our participation, our consciousness can be just like a wilderness, and not necessarily the kind of wilderness that we would want to inhabit. In fact, the old High Line (according to a student of mine) was not such a great place to be: it was overrun with insidious species that crowded out everything else.
The invitation of yoga is to bring a little culture to this wilderness, just like the High Line. To put up boundaries, cultivate certain seeds, and choose to let others lie fallow. By yoga, we cultivate the garden of our consciousness, to make it the kind of garden that we would want to inhabit.
The good news is that, even with just a little encouragement (water, sun), nature will do its thing. (I'm thinking of the Pangea products' boxes, which are actually seeds; all you have to do is put them in some soil outside and they will sprout.) It requires only minimal effort, a gentle nudge (called "utsaha") to start nature's processes going. When we bring our engagement to nature, it will sprout and seed in wondrous ways.
This week, the YogaNerd goes audio. Click here to listen to the full class.
- Open to Grace: Yoga is allowing the very natural process of the seeding and flowering of your consciousness the space and room to grow. The breath is the embodied form of vayu (the wind), which carries the seeds into our awareness. This first principle connects us to the natural flow of the breath, which is pretty effective even without our participation. By engaging in ujjayi breath, with bring cultivation to the breath's natural flow.
- Muscle Energy: is the energy of nourishing those seeds that we want to cultivate, that we want to see grow and flower. One of the aspects of Muscle Energy is that it draws from the peripheral parts of the body toward the core, the place of seed potential in the body that we call the "focal point." There are three focal points in the body (the core of the pelvis, the heart center, and the soft palate) and in any given pose, there is one active focal point (the one that is most weight-bearing).
- Organic Energy: is the energy of life sprouting and growing, of seeds taking root and stretching toward the sun. It moves from the active focal point down into the earth first, and then from the focal point back up and out (just like seeds, which send roots down before their grow upward). These principles of alignment follow the natural processes of nature.
- Tadasana: This is a great place to feel the pelvic focal point, which is active in all of the standing poses (and seated poses, and supine poses). First, just let the breath expand you from inside out. Then bring your hands to your hips. Lift your toes and engage the legs, from your feet into the core of the pelvis (it's in line with the bottom of your sacrum and the lower belly). Keeping the muscles strong, now use your hands to root the pelvic bones and leg bones down (as if you were growing roots into the earth), and then rise back up out of the pelvis through your sacrum and your belly.
- Uttanasana and lunges: work the legs in the same way as you did in tadasana. To grow the pose, extend organically from the pelvic bones down through the legs into the earth and then rise up through your spine.
- Cobra pose, rajakapotasana prep pose: In this baby backbends, you'll start to feel how the balance of Muscle and Organic Energy serves to extend the spine from a place of nourishment, rather than just bending the spine. Anchor your pelvis firmly into the earth, and then imagine that you could grow your spine out of that rooted place.
- Parsvakonasana, virabhadrasana 2 (with goddess variation), trikonasana: All of the standing poses have the pelvis as the active focal point, so that's the place you'll draw into to nourish yourself, and that's the place that you will grow from.
- Adho mukha svanasana: In downward facing dog, because the heart center is below the pelvis, it is more weightbearing and the focal point shifts to the heart focal point. This is in line with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and the bottom of the sternum. Remember always to begin by expanding with your breath, so you let vayu carry the seeds of your consciousness. Then engage the muscles of your arms from your fingertips clawing the earth all the way up into the heart focal point. Keeping the muscles strong, extend from the heart back down into the heart, planting roots that allow the spine to rise out of the heart focal point and stretch fully through the legs.
- Adho mukha vrksasana: In handstand (as in pinca mayurasana) the heart is the focal point, so that's the place that you nourish and that's the place that you expand from. Remember to root to rise. It's good to practice this with your heels on the wall so you can feel the expansion upwards through the legs.
- Bakasana: Most of the arm balances (except those when one foot is on the floor) have the heart as the focal point. The expansion that comes from planting yourself from the heart down into the earth will help you move toward straight arms and perhaps all the way up into handstand.
- Rajakapotasana prep, dhanurasana (holding the ankles): I love doing these 2 poses in sequence, because they are essentially the same form, except one of them has the hands on the floor while the other has the hands holding the ankles. In both poses, grounding through the pelvis and legs will help the spine to elongate. If you have a practice buddy, have them press down through your heels so that your shins and knees anchor vertically into the earth. This will help you to feel more rooted, and from strong roots, the whole pose will grow.
- Setubandha: Bridge pose is one of the few poses (including headstand and shoulderstand) where you're primarily weight-bearing on the head and hence where the focal point is in the soft palate. To feel the palate focal point, try doing the pose holding the ends of a strap that is wrapped across the front of your ankles. When you go up into the pose, tug on the strap to draw all of the parts of your body into a nourishing embrace up toward the seed place of power in the palate. Then keeping the muscles engaged, extend down through the back of your skull (without flattening your neck) and back out through the torso and legs.
- Urdhva dhanurasana: Depending on where you are in your wheel practice, the focal point may be either in the pelvis or the heart. If you're working with straight arms, these two points will probably be on the same plane, and so you default to the pelvis; if your elbows are bent, your heart will likely be lower (and hence more weight-bearing), and so it would be the active focal point. Knowing which of these seeds to nourish and cultivate makes all of the difference in your practice!
- Sarvangasana: The palate focal point is active here, so draw fully in the palate from your hands and feet (as you do, maintain a natural curve in your neck). Extending from the palate down through the back of the skull into the earth will help promote a lift up through your spine and feet.