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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Building a pillar of support

September always feels like a month of intense activity. I haven't been in school in a decade, and yet when September rolls around, I somehow get caught up in the feeling of a new school year and the rush of a million things to do.This year is particularly insane (aren't they all?), and I've felt the need to find that inner source of support that sustains me in everything.

My meditation teacher, Paul Muller Ortega, posed the question at a workshop this summer: what is it that sustains you? What is that pillar of support, or stambha, that holds you up? What is the resource that you can count on? And what sustains it?

In the physical body, the pillar of support is the spine, and that's what we'll work on in the Nerd this week. The spine is supported by a series of muscles, in particular in the back body by the group of muscles known as the erector spinae, which move the spine into extension.

But then what sustains the physical body? In the yoga traditions, there are 5 koshas or sheaths or ways of experiencing ourselves embodied. The physical body, called the annamaya kosha or "food body" is the densest, most overt experience of ourselves. It is sustained by the pranamaya kosha, the body of breath, of energy, of light. The central pillar of support the pranamaya kosha is known as the sushumna nadi, the central subtle energy channel that runs along the midline of the body, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

So what sustains the prana body? If you dig down to the subtle-most experience of the self, you find the anandamaya kosha, the body of bliss. Upon this, everything else depends for sustenance. It is the experience of yourself as heart. The unbounded wellspring of energy, the limitless resource of the Self, is the heart, or, if you prefer, love.

My sister just had twins about a week ago, and I'm baffled by the amount of energy it must take for her to just get though a day without collapsing, and then the next day. Yet she's managing just fine (ok, probably a little tired, but she's not letting on), because the unlimited resources of herself is love, and she's deep into the connection to that pillar that supports everything else.

Click here to listen to the full class.

PRINCIPLES to build support around the spine.

  • Open to Grace: Turn to the breath, as the breath body is what sustains and supports the physical body.
  • Muscle Energy: In particular, focus on hugging muscle energy to the midline, that central pillar of support in your body.
  • Inner Spiral: In all of the poses where we're lifting one or both legs behind so that the spine moves into extension (a.k.a. backbend back), lift the inner seam of the leg as much as the outer seam. The erctor muscles engage in alignment when you focus on hugging the midline and lifting the inseam of the leg into extension.
  • Organic Energy: From the focal point (mostly the pelvis in this practice), extend fully, both down though the legs and up through the pillar of the spine. Think of the torso as a pillar of light opening up. This stretches the erector muscles and makes space between the vertebrae.
  • Pranayama: Start practice by connecting to the breath with simple ujjayi pranayama. The breath is a guide to the a more subtle place of support inside.
  • Cat/Cow variations: move through your spine fluently and evenly. Initiate the arching of your spine (cow pose) from the action of your inner thighs pressing back and wide (Inner Spiral). Initiate the rounding of your spine from the head tucking and the upper back rounding first, then continuing all the way to the tailbone. This will help you move more evenly through the spine with your breath.
  • Surya namaskar (1-legged variations): To access the erector spinae muscles, do surya namaskar variations with one leg lifted back behind you. Start in tadasana by standing just on your right leg and stretching your left leg back behind you. Flex the foot and hold the leg to the midline. From the power of the midline, lift up more through your inner thigh as you stretch your arms overhead; this will feel like a baby dancer pose, as you arc your spine toward the sky. Keep the leg hugging the midline as you stretch organically down from the pelvis through the standing leg, back out through the extended leg, and up through your spine. Try having one leg lifted behind you in variations of tadasana/urdhva tadasana, uttanasana (standing splits), plank, caturanga, cobra, and adho mukha svanasana.
  • Salabhasana variations: These poses, laying on your belly with the spine extended and one or both legs lifted, are a great place to strengthen the erector spinae muscles. Try the following variations: hands clasped behind your back with the chest lifted, both feet on the floor; arms straight alongside your body with palms face down, chest lifted; arms alongside body, chest lifted and one or both legs up. In all variations, hug the legs powerfully to the midline, lift up through the inner edge of the extended leg, and then extend organically out through the bones of the legs as well as long through the spine and out the crown of the head.
  • Anjaneyasana: After doing several these warm ups, you'll feel your back more supported as you arc back into anjaneyasana.
  • Parsvakonasana: To extend fully through the pillar of your spine, once you have the legs aligned with Muscle Energy and Inner and Outer Spiral, root Organic Energy from the pelvis down through the legs into the earth. As the pelvis roots down, lengthen out of your lower back through the thumb side of your hand to get the back of your body to extend. Then keeping that, root through the pelvis and lengthen out of your lower belly through the pinky side of your hand. Now you'll feel the full strength of that inner pillar of light.
  • Baby natarajasana, virabhadrasana 3, standing splits: I love doing these three poses in sequence. All of them rely on the support of the spine that the erector spinae muscles provide. In the transition from baby natarajasana to warrior 3, keep the back leg hugging to the midline and lifting through the inseam of the leg. Think of warrior 3 more like a backbend (like the salabhasana variations you did) and see how this transforms the pose.
  • Handstand (1 leg press up): Go straight from the standing splits into handstand, and see if you can get up into the inversion just from hugging that top leg to the midline and lifting the inner thigh. If you're practicing on your own, try standing on a block to give a little more lift.
  • Ardha dhanurasana on hands and knees: These variations from all 4's are a great way to build a connection to the midline of the body. One option is to hold your back foot with the opposite hand, and the other is to hold the foot with the arm on the same side. Whichever form you're doing, squeeze the back leg to the midline and lift more up through the inner edge of the leg. Then stretch organically, and let your spine unfurl.
  • Makarasana (hands clasped behind head): This is the true form of makarasana, even if I often teach it with the hands on the floor like cobra. Lay on your belly with your knees bent at 90 degrees, and then clasp your hands behind your skull. Draw the upper arms back and curl your head back into your hands to lift your chest up. Keep pressing down from your heels through your knees into the earth, and then extend from your pelvis out through the legs and long through your spine.
  • Dhanurasana: After makarasana, dhanurasana should be a breeze.
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana 1 and 2: Do the thigh stretches in these forms first, then return to each pose with a different approach: In pigeon prep, hug your legs in toward each other until your pelvis lifts energetically and you can bring your hands to your hips. Keeping your hands at your hips and legs strong, bend your back knee. Without using your hands, draw the back knee in so that the shin is vertical, then from your pelvis anchor down through your legs and extend up through your spine. Allow the strong erector muscles to support you as you curl back, head toward your heel (but not using your hands!).
  • Scorpion variations: Try either handstand or pinca mayurasana scorpion. Both should feel very supported in the spine, as the erector muscles will keep it extended rather than allowing it to compress downward with gravity.
  • Upavista konasana: Re-set to the middle after all of those backbends.
  • Nadi shodana: Conclude practice with this pranayama, which balances the two primary energy channels on either side of sushumna nadi.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yoga of Impact

During a couple of weeks on vacation, I set myself a couple of tasks in my yoga practice: the first was to do every pose listed on the 3 Anusara syllabi (in preparation for my advanced asana retreat). The second was to figure out why my lower back is so stuck in forward bends. Doing all of the poses was simply fun! Understanding my lower back was a revelation.

A general principle of Anusara Yoga therapeutics is that the thighs govern the health of the lower back, because the way the femurs set into the hip sockets determines the curve and support for the lower back. This is something I have worked with for years, but in certain forward bends, I have found it nearly impossible to get the thigh bones to set back enough and hence, my lower back has been locked.

So I began by investigating the Thigh Loop, which is the principle of alignment that takes the tops of the femurs back into the hip sockets. Very quickly I realized that while I had been initiating the thigh loop, I wasn't really following through with the full action and so I wasn't getting the full benefits of this action.

Thigh Loop, like all of the principles of alignment in Anusara Yoga, initiates to the back plane of the body. To me, it's like understanding that the inner shift and transformation of our yoga happens first, and then our outer lives and actions reflect what has already transformed on the inside. So, the Thigh Loop takes the heads of the femurs back into the hip sockets. But it doesn't stop there; it then flows down the back of the leg/hamstrings to the top of the shin, presses the top of the shin forward (where it reinforces the top of shin loop and helps prevent the leg from hyperextending) and then lifts up the front of the thigh (engaging the quadriceps along the way) and re-sets the top of the femur back.All of this time, I had just been pressing the thighs back. It would be like making the inner shift, without a corresponding outer shift.

During vacation, I was also catching up on the New Yorker, and there was a book review on experiments in green living by Elizabeth Kolbert that caught my attention. While these individual experiments might be well and good in terms of individual enlightenment about the impact of our lives on the environment and the excesses of modern day living, they fail to become more than mere stunts if the authors don't take what they have learned toward making a real difference in the world. Kolbert takes issue with Colin Beavan's "No Impact Man", noting that his time might have been better spent trying to persuade his neighbors and building management to change the wasteful heating policy rather than simply turning off his own heat and living off the excess with his windows open in a New York winter. She finally pokes a suggestion that a good sequel to his book might be: "Impact Man".

This hit home with me, as it reminded me that what's at stake in our practice of yoga (indeed, in life) is so much more than just our individual transformation and insight. Rather, it's how we take what we have learned and make an impact on the world for the better. Back to the Thigh Loop, it reminded me why all of our principles of alignment begin to the back body, but end in the front body: the inner transformation must be made an outer, forward-looking offering in order for us to fulfill our practice. May we make an impact.

As soon as I made the adjustment, my lower back unlocked and forward bends have been a lot easier. How does this change the world? It doesn't. But the process of understanding it was important, because it is a reminder that yoga has stakes much higher than forward bends.

Click here to listen to the full class.


  • Open to Grace: Remember that the stakes of a practice of yoga are greater than just individual transformation.
  • Muscle Energy: The engagement of our muscles is a reminder that our practice is one of engagement, to make an impact rather than to sit by passively.
  • Ankle Loop/Shin Loop: The Thigh Loop builds on the foundation of the lower two loops, so it's important to get these established. Ankle Loop starts at the base of the shin and flows back and down the heel, lifts up through the arches and sets the base of the shin back again. The Shin Loop initiates in the same place, lifts up the back of the calves, presses the top of the shins forward, and then flows down the front of the leg to reconnect at the base of the shin. If the knees lock back into hyperextension in any straight-legged pose, it will be impossible to get the thighs to set back. (This is a result of the "see-saw principle": if one end of a bone (or body part) moves in one direction, the opposite end will move in the other. So if the top of the shin presses back, the top of the thigh will press forward.)
  • Thigh Loop: With the lower two loops firmly established, go to the tops of the thigh bones, in the root of the pelvis. Press back and draw down through the backs of the legs, pressing the tops of the shins forward. I almost think of the tops of the thighs going back and the tops of the shins going forward as simultaneous actions, and this really helps keep the shin loop established and feel the lower half of thigh loop. As the top of the shin stabilizes, then quadriceps muscles now have a chance to engage and lift up toward the core of the pelvis. Use the quadriceps muscles eccentrically to press the thigh bones back again.
  • Organic Energy: Once everything is lined up, you can make a full offering, extending from the core of the pelvis down through the legs and back up through the spine.
  • Uttanasana: Begin with your knees bent, to ensure that the legs aren't locked back into hyperextension. Lift and spread the toes to engage the legs. Keeping the knees bent, draw the base of the shins back so the heels press down and the arches lift. Then keeping the shins drawing back, lift the calf muscles and press the tops of the shins forward. Now activate the thigh loop, from the tops of the thighs pressing back, draw energy down the backs of the legs to the tops of the shins, so that the tops of the shins press forward even as the thighs press back. Go all the way to straight legs this way. You'll find that you have access to your quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh. Use them to lift the front part of the thigh loop and set the femurs back again. Then extend fully down into the earth through straight legs.
  • Parsvottanasana, prasarita padottanasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: In all of the straight-legged standing poses, the actions are the same as in uttanasna. Remember to begin with the knees bent and the legs engaged, and then work through the loops from the bottom up. As you press the tops of the thighs back, go to the bottom part of the thigh loop and engage the tops of the shins forward until you feel the quads fire, then bring the legs fully straight from that action.
  • Anjaneyasana (thigh stretch): When you do thigh stretches, hold the foot on the metatarsals (below the toes) so that you can flex the toes back. This actually helps you to increase Muscle Energy
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana, virabhadrasana 3: In the standing balances, it's common for the knee to lock out. As a result, you'll lose access to the Thigh Loop and the muscles of the quads. Build the loops from the bottom up, and remember to bring Thigh Loop forward through the top of the shin.
  • Ardha hanumanasana: I love this pose for the thigh loop, because you can see the effects on your legs when you get it activated. Also, having your heel pressing into the earth will help you to access the lower loops. Keep working the thigh loop until you see your quads tone and lift.
  • Anjaneyasana (thigh stretch): Just get one more juicy thigh stretch in before...
  • Hanumanasana
  • Trianga mukhaikapada pasicmottanasana, krounchasana: The forward bends can be challenging for creating good alignment in the legs and pelvis: because you have such a broad foundation, you will have less mobility. However, you can use the floor as a prop to help reinforce the actions of the loops. Press the base of the shin and heel down as you flex your foot an tone your calves. The floor will keep you from hyperextending, but to feel the top of the shin pressing forward even more, bring one hand under the calf muscle of the extended leg and lift the muscle up (toward the bone) as you root the base of the shin and the top of the thigh, bringing your leg all the way to straight. Notice how your lower back will draw in and up.
  • Upavista konasana: In stage one of any forward bend, the pelvis/legs are at 90 degrees, and the lower back (including the top of the sacrum and the lumbar vertebrae) should tip in and up into the body. So start upright, with your hands supporting you on the floor behind your pelvis. Engage the legs, press your ankles toward the earth, tone the calves and press the tops of your thighs down. As the thigh bones set back, re-assert the power of the tops of the shins pressing forward (up) until you can access your quads and draw them up towards your pelvis and root back down. Until your legs are flush to the earth, and until your lower back draws in and up, stay seated upright. Go to stage 2 of the forward bend only once you have a natural curve in your lower back and the thighs flush to the floor. This will ensure that there is length and space in your lower back as you bow forward.
  • Dandasana: This is the stage 1 forward bend of pascimottanasana. In my book, it's one of the hardest poses on all of the syllabi (OK, my hamstrings are tight compared to the rest of my body), because you have both little mobility in the pelvis and legs and very little leverage. Lean back into your hands behind your pelvis to access the power of the legs. Keep your heels pressing down and calves toned, and then root those thighs DOWN until you feel your lower back draw in and up. Now you're ready for...
  • Pascimottanasana