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For me, this has been a season of challenge and adversity (and I hear that it’s going around), so I was so grateful to receive a Kali myth from Douglas Brooks last weekend that speaks to vanquishing the demons in life.
One of the fiercest adversaries that Kali faces is a demon named “Rakta Bija” (aka, blood seed). The story goes that this Rakta Bija was terrorizing the earth, and every time the gods tried to slay the demon, each drop of blood spilled became a new Rakta Bija. So very quickly, they had infinite Rakta Bijas on the loose, the gods were really worried. So they appealed to Shiva, who was too busy meditating to be bothered much, but he sent Kali to deal with the demon.
The word for “demon” in Sanskrit is rakshasa, which literally means “the protected ones”. It’s a strange idea, but they are protected in the sense that they cannot destroyed. The teaching of demons is that there are indeed real adversaries in the world that we must face, AND that you can’t ever really get rid of anything that exists. Everything must have its place (and so the Tantric strategy is first one of radical affirmation of the world), and the key to yoga is where to place things so that what is truly adversarial doesn’t destroy us or create more demons.
How does Kali handle Rakta Bija? Well of course the first thing she tries is to slay him. Don’t we all? Whenever there’s anything challenging or adversarial that we’re up against, the impulse is to destroy it. But the teaching of Rakta Bija is that this doesn’t really work; if we try to slay a demon, it just creates more demons. Kali’s response, then, is to roll out her huge tongue and swallow all of the Rakta Bijas whole. In this way she gives the protected ones a place, a place inside where they can be assimilated and turned into her nourishment and fortification.
The Kali/Rakta Bija myth is a great place to turn whenever you’re facing a challenge or an adversary. It can especially apply to how we deal with injuries in our practice. Injuries are like demons; they’re adversaries that you have to confront. If we avoid engaging them, they wreak havoc on the world. If we try to deal with them piecemeal, by working on that part of the body in isolation from the rest, they just create more Rakta Bijas. We have to engage the situation whole, and, like Kali, swallow it so it becomes something that we assimilate and learn from, something we use as food.
Remember, the demons in life are “protected”: you couldn’t really eliminate them if you wanted to, and you also wouldn’t really want a life without them. Why? Because if we never face any adversaries, if we never are put to the challenge, we never really grow ourselves. Recently, a friend read me the last line of a book he was reading (I don’t remember the title, or I would share), and it went something like this: “You can overcome a difficult childhood, but it’s hard to overcome a protected childhood.” Which is to say, we need something to push up against in order to grow.
In the practice of Anusara Yoga, Muscle Energy is that action that connects the body as a whole and gives us something to push up against. It provides the active resistance we need in order to expand.
- Open to Grace: First we must receive the world, just as it is, including the rakshasas.
- Muscle Energy: We’re going to work on Muscle Energy in the upper body primarily this week, but Muscle Energy really connects ALL of the body parts. If you try to activate just one portion of Muscle Energy, it isn’t as effective. In fact, while you might find that you “slay” a demon in one place, it will only create more Rakta Bijas if you don’t engage Muscle Energy fully. This principle hugs all of the muscles to the bones, draws the limbs toward the midline, and connects all of the parts of the body from the periphery to the core (focal point). In the upper body, one of the key effects of Muscle Energy is that the heads of the arm bones move to the back plane of the body. However, somehow we have gotten in the habit of just drawing the arm bones back, without really engaging Muscle Energy. The result? More Rakta Bijas appear (i.e., maybe the pain in the shoulder goes away, but the wrist starts to hurt). Muscle Energy in the arms must draw from the fingertips all the way through the vector of the arms into the active focal point. Doing this is to become Kali swallowing Rakta Bija whole, so that it becomes assimilated.
- Organic Energy: When Muscle Energy is engaged, it provides the active resistance that we need to expand. The primary principle of expansion is Organic Energy, and it moves from the active focal point along the core lines of the body and out through the peripheral parts. They key is that Organic Energy must move into resistance in order to open us up. Here’s how…
- Pranam: This is an extended form of child’s pose, with the arms stretched in front and the hands placed as if for downward-facing dog. At the start of practice, just let yourself settle and receive yourself fully, including whatever demons you feel you’re facing right now. Then pressing your hands into the earth, claw the fingertips down (while keeping the four corners of the hands down) and draw Muscle Energy from the hands up through the arms, through the shoulder girdle, and into the core of the pelvis. You’ll feel the upper arms lift as a result of this action. Now release that and try just lifting the arm bones. Feel the difference. The first is an action, while just lifting the arm bones is more of a movement (it doesn’t have resistance). Once again, engage fully Muscle Energy from the hands into the core, then keeping that, melt the heart. Now lift up and back to downward-facing dog. Feel the directional flow of Muscle Energy in the arms here, from the hands into the focal point of the heart. Notice again how this feels different from simply lifting the arm bones.
- Anjali Mudra: Begin by standing in tadasana with the hands in anjali mudra. Receive your breath. Then press the four corners of your hands (index knuckles, heel of the thumb, pinky knuckles, and outer heel of the hand) into each other and press your fingertips into each other as well. From this action, draw energy up through the arms, through the shoulders and into the core of the pelvis. Follow the flow of Muscle Energy, as it goes along the crooked path of the arms; notice the difference between doing this and drawing the arm bones back. It will feel more integrated, more like you’re addressing yourself as a whole, rather than just in parts.
- Surya namaskar: Because this sequence has a lot of weight-bearing on the arms, establishing good action through the arms and shoulder is important to avoid creating more Rakta Bijas. Before starting the flow of surya namaskar, stand in tadasana, and bring your arms to your sides, as if in preparation for cobra. Have the elbows bent. Take a full breath in so the sides of the torso lift, and then soften on the outside. Then press your fingertips into the air (you must create active resistance, since the floor isn’t there right now) and draw Muscle Energy back through the arms; as it core lines of your body, notice how the elbows flow back and lift, the upper arms lift and then flow back, and the shoulder blades slide down the back toward the pelvis. (You might get the sensation that you’re doing an 80’s dance if you exaggerate this enough.) Imprint that feeling in your body, and then carry it through a few rounds of surya namaskar.
- Parsvakonasana: Start with your bottom arm resting on your front thigh, and your top arm extended alongside your ear, with the palm facing out in the same direction as your chest (not up, not down). Because the hand is in the air, you have to create the resistance (you have to become your own demon, as it were) in order to power up the arm. Claw your fingertips into the air and draw the energy along the bones of the arm, through the shoulder girdle and down into the pelvis. Keeping that, anchor from the pelvis through the legs into the earth and then stretch long out through your spine and out through the fingertips. This Organic Energy must move up against the resistance of Muscle Energy for the expansion to happen.
- Trikonasna: Similar to parsvakonasana, the top hand needs more resistance in order to get the opening in the shoulder. Bring your top hand forward until it’s right above your head, and then actively press your hand forward as if it were pushing up against a wall. Then draw from the fingertips down through the arm and into the pelvis. Notice how the arm bone goes back in a more integrated, holistic way. Keeping the hand pressing forward to power Muscle Energy, now turn and open the chest as you extend with Organic Energy.
- Prasarita padottanasana with a shoulder stretch: Take a wide stance and clasp hands behind your back. Take a full breath in to expand the inside and soften the outside. Bend your elbows to start, and then draw the heels of your hands toward each other. That is to say, they pull toward each other with resistance, rather than just bringing the heels of your hands together, or letting the wrists flop out with the heels of the hands separated. Then draw from the hands up through the crooked vector of the arms and into the pelvis. Keep that and bow forward. Re-engage Muscle Energy from the hands up through the arms into the pelvis (the arm bones will lift and the shoulder blades will move up the back towards your hips as a result). Make sure the inner arms (biceps) fire as much as the outer arms. Keeping that power, now extend Organic Energy. Follow the vector of Organic Energy (it goes down first, then up and out through the arms). As you straighten the arms, they should move into resistance, rather than just lock out. This will create a true healing expansion in the shoulder girdle.
- Handstand: Start on hands and knees and just settle. Now spread the fingers evenly and engage Muscle Energy fully. If you tend to be hyper-mobile in the elbows, you might find that the inner arms/biceps don’t engage, and the elbows then lock out. So try this: bend both elbows to the sides, and then sweep your hands and arms to the midline without straightening the arms; the biceps will fire into that resistance. Then stretch your arms straight into the resistance of the biceps. Now soften the upper back and go up into handstand with straight arms.
- Pinca Mayurasana: I’ve been working on this pose without a mat this week (I know, it seems a little demonic, but it does give you something to push up against, and you will get stronger). In the prep pose, line up your forearms parallel, and then claw the floor. Sweep your hands energetically toward each other (no block, just on the floor) without letting them move. You’ll feel the inner forearms and biceps tone. Keeping that, again soften the upper back and go up.
- Pigeon thigh stretch, ardha bekhasana, etc
- Dhanurasana: In setting up for bow pose, pause with your hands holding your ankles. Flex your feet to power the legs, and then from your hands tugging on your ankles, draw Muscle Energy up through the arms (arm bones lift and shoulder blades move down the back as you follow the current all the way into the core of the pelvis). Then kick back from your pelvis through the legs into the resistance of your hands to go up.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana: This is so good in wheel pose. For so many years, I had wrist pain in wheel. Only in wheel. And I couldn’t figure out what was going on, because I had my arm bones back. It took me forever to figure out that I was trying to slay the demon by chopping off its head (arm bones back, without doing Muscle Energy), and that was creating more demons. Then I learned to do Muscle Energy, from the periphery all the way to the core; devour the demon, assimilate it, and it no longer feels demonic, just something to push against. On the top of your head, feel the difference between plugging the arm bones back and engaging full Muscle Energy from the fingertips all the way up through the arms into the core of the palate. Then do the same in full wheel. Once you get a true Muscle Energy going, the active expansion of Organic Energy is pure bliss.
- Sarvangasana: OK. This is definitely one of the most challenging poses there is, and I know we often teach it with the shoulders supported by blankets to protect the neck. However, what I’ve found is that if I stay on the wood floor, it provides more the active resistance that I need to get good power and opening in the shoulders. Doing the pose on the blankets tends to encourage a resting/sinking quality down into the blankets, which then defeats the purpose of using the blankets in the first place. Rakta Bija creates more Rakta Bijas. TRY without the blankets. Seriously. Try it. OK, go to plow pose and then clasp your hands with your fingers interlaced, like we did in prasarita padottanasana. Start with your elbows bent into the floor (hands off the floor). Energetically draw the heels of your hands toward each other and then from the fingers pull up the crooked line of the arms into the core of the palate. The arm bones will move slightly toward your ears and then back (down to the floor). Keep your chin lifted and curl your head back, so there is a curve in your neck. None of the vertebrae of your neck should be touching the floor. Once you have that, from the palate, extend back out through the arms so the arms straighten INTO THE RESISTANCE OF THE MUSCLES. If the elbows come off the floor, you’ve lost muscle energy. If the palms separate so that the wrists are splayed, you’ve lost Muscle Energy. You must create a powerful resistance by drawing IN to the core in order for the opening to occur. Keeping your hands clasped (elbows and outer wrists down on the floor), now bring your legs up into sarvangasana. Only go up and stay up as long as you can maintain the lift of all the vertebrae off the floor. This might be just a breath or two, or maybe 30-60 seconds, but its a powerful pose.