The new year came in filled with blessings, as I was on pilgrimage in South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks. It was my first trip to India, and I have to admit that I was at first confused by the temple experience, which was chaotic and rushed, not at all like the experience of the sacred that I had come to expect from my Western perspective.
Going to temples in India is all about darshan, the exchange of glances with the deity where you see yourself in the divine and the divine sees you. That exchange of glances usually lasts only a few seconds, maybe 30 seconds, maybe a minute (on Indian Stretchable Time, you never really know how much time has passed), because you’re being heaved and pushed forward by the crowd (tens of thousands of pilgrims) and hurried out by the priests (busy garlanding, cracking coconuts, offering prasad). And then you’re suddenly outside in the blazing sun wondering, what just happened?
The first time we went for darshan, I left wishing I had had some time to sit in quiet contemplation. Then after several days, I realized that this wasn’t going to happen, and I slowly came to understand that temple culture isn’t about creating the sacred in some “holy” or “pious” expression that is somehow other than your everyday life. Rather, everyday life is brought in to the temple: the innermost sanctum of the deity is filled with the ordinary rituals of bathing, eating, giving and receiving. And in the temple grounds there are people cooking, eating, bathing, talking on cell phones — so much of what you’d see outside. This experience was telling me something: to find the sacred in the everyday, to see the ordinary as divine. And so when you leave the temple, you begin to see everything and everyone as an expression of the divine. Darshan is happening all the time.
In the same way that the temple experience seemed to be drawing the sacred and the ordinary into each other, the practice of asana that we do in Anusara Yoga seeks to root the sublime in the everyday, and connect the everyday to the sublime. In the physical body, the upper body (associated with the upper cakras) is associated with the higher expressions of self: the compassion and love of the heart, the power of articulation, the clarity and awakening of vision, and an opening into the Source. In many traditions, the lower body is de-emphasized as being less important (even less divine) because it is more associated with mundane, and the whole point is to reach the sublime. In Anusara Yoga both aspects of the self are honored. The principle of Muscle Energy actually draws these two aspects together, into an inner sanctum that we call the Focal Point. The Focal Point, then, becomes the place where the vision of darshan happens, where we see the divine in the ordinary and the ordinary in the divine.
Open to Grace: The first thing you do before you enter a temple is you take of your shoes. It’s a gesture of respect and a reminder that you are stepping into a sacred experience, and you receive it literally through the most mundane thing of all: the connection of your feet to the earth. So when we place our foundation, whether it’s the foundation of the feet or the hands, it’s with total respect, because the most sublime experience is available to you right now, through the earth.
Muscle Energy to the Focal Point: This principle draws all of the parts of ourselves into the inner sanctum of the focal point. There are three possible focal points (yes, the inner sanctum MOVES), and which one is active depends on which is most weight-bearing. The focal point in the pelvis, in line with the juncture point between the sacrum and the tailbone, is active when you’re primarily weight-bearing on the legs, as in all standing and seated poses, as well as in supine poses. The heart focal point, located in line with the bottom of the sternum and bottom tips of the shoulder blades, is active when you’re more weight-bearing on the arms, as in downward-facing dog, handstand, forearm stand, and most arm balances. And the palate focal point, at the juncture where the soft and hard palate meet, is active when you’re weight-bearing on the head, as in headstand and shoulder stand.
Muscle Energy draws together the upper and lower reaches of ourselves, pulling from the earth upward and the sky downward to connect and fuse in the inner sanctum of the focal point. I’ve noticed, however, that we tend to keep these two aspects of our experience separate, especially when the pelvis is the focal point. We’re pretty good at connecting from the feet up to the pelvis, but when it gets to the upper body, we tend to short-cut by just plugging the arm bones back in the shoulder sockets, without truly connecting this energy all the way down into the pelvic focal point. It’s like creating a false boundary between outside and in, between what’s sacred and what’s mundane. You’ll find, though that if you can connect from all parts of the periphery (feet, hands, head) into the active focal point, the inner experience will open up.
Organic Energy from the Focal Point: And that’s just what happens. The experience of the inner sanctum explodes into the every day. Organic Energy first grounds from the focal point into the earth, rooted in the mundane. And then it stretches up and out toward the sky.
We’re going to focus mostly on the part of the body that connects upper and lower into the core of the pelvis. The muscles involved will be the latissimus dorsi, the external and internal obliques, the psoas and quadratus lumborum. In all poses, draw from the foundation up into the active focal point, and from the periphery DOWN into the active focal point.
- Downward-facing dog, Uttanasana, Prasarita Padottanasana: Try all of these warm up poses by adding twists to them. If you really stabilize the foundation of the twist (shoulder girdle in dog pose, pelvis in the others) through Muscle Energy to the focal point from all peripheral parts, you’ll find a deep access to the sense of fusion and expansion.
- Virabhadrasana 2: To get a deep side stretch, add the goddess variation by bringing your back hand to the back leg/shin and the top arm overhead.
- Parsvakonasana: Make sure that when you do Muscle Energy in the arms you draw from the fingertips all the way to the pelvis, rather than just taking the head of the arm bone back. Then keep drawing into the pelvis as you stretch out with Organic Energy.
- Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana: Try these poses with the top arm in the overhead plane and pull from the fingertips through the arm and shoulder girdle all the way into the pelvis (as you connect from the feet up into the pelvis). Keeping that, then extend from the pelvis down into the earth and, grounded in the mundane, stretch BOTH ARMS alongside your ears.
- Brigid’s Cross: The pelvis is the foundation of the twist here, so stabilize into that place and twist in your belly and torso, without the pelvic bones turning.
- Parivrtta Parsvakonasana and Parivrtta Trikonasana: As in the other standing poses, work here with the arm in the overhead plane so you can feel the vector from the fingertips to the pelvic focal point.
- Handstand and Pinca Mayurasana: Now the heart becomes the inner sanctum, as it’s the active focal point. Once you’re connected there, bring the legs into a split position (one leg vertical, the other at 90 degrees in front) and, crossing the front leg across your body, TWIST. You have to keep connected into the heart focal point, especially through the arm that’s on the side from which you are twisting, to access it.
- Anjaneyasana, thigh stretch, hanumanasana
- Tiriangmukhapadapascimottanasana, krounchasana, baby cradle: Get one leg in virasana and open up these poses.
- Surya yantrasana: Here’s the gateway in: once you have the leg up and over the shoulder, grab hold of the foot with the opposite hand and PAUSE. Flex your foot and tug on the foot with your hand so that you can create Muscle Energy from both the foot and from the hand through the arm through the shoulder girdle and into the pelvic focal point. Keeping that, stretch the leg straight. It’s amazing how well this works
- Visvamittrasana: Yes, same instructions as above for Visvamittrasana. Before stretching the leg straight, connect all parts into the pelvis. I’ve found that working the pose this way allows me to do expand fully, even on the side where I have a tweaky hamstring, because everything is drawn together so clearly.
- Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana: Again, same as above. This is a huge stretch on the side body muscles (obliques, QL). Make sure these connector muscles are engaged to the core first by drawing the back knee energetically toward the pelvis and tugging on the front foot with your hand to connect the upper body to the lower body. Then you can stretch and open.