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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.

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