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Category Archive for ‘Inner Spiral’ rss

The Gateway to Happiness: Part 1 of a 4-Part Series

The snowstorm was on its way to NYC, and there was an eerie quiet to the city. Students kept asking, worried, whether classes would be canceled the next day, and when I went out to my favorite pizza place, my friend insisted that we meet early to beat the storm and we found an empty restaurant, instead of the usual long wait. I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Midwest, or maybe it’s because I was out of town when the blizzard hit a couple of weeks ago, but I kept thinking: it’s just snow.

So I when I got home I looked online and discovered saw that the city’s response to the last blizzard was less than adequate, and indeed it had caused a major disruption. Everyone was worried it would happen again and, as a result, they were changing their plans and hunkering down.

It made me think about a beautiful teaching I received recently from Douglas Brooks, on the four true enemies of happiness (they are really four pairs), the things that get in our way of being content in our lives and accessing our heart’s desires. The first one is what is called bhaya, or fear. Yes, fear was taking over New York City. It was the kind of fear that is based on past experience (the “I’ve been burned before” scenario) rather than on present circumstance, and keeps us from going for what we want. Fear is an enemy of happiness when it becomes paralyzing, when it keeps us from acting. If you live from the place of fear, you can come up with a reason not to do anything; just getting out of bed is dangerous (of course, not getting out of bed can also be dangerous, but we won’t go there).

Interestingly, going to the opposite of fear doesn’t lead us to greater happiness, either. Abhaya, fearlessness, can also be an obstacle to happiness, if we’re fearless in a way that’s reckless or foolhardy. NYC’s response to the December blizzard probably falls into this category; perhaps they were thinking, it’s just snow, and so failed to take the necessary measures to ensure safety and the smooth functioning of the city. Abhaya is problematic when it makes us rash, and we act without concern for the consequences.

So we’re not trying to get to the opposite extreme. Instead, the gateway to happiness is where we can hold both fear and fearlessness in the same place, as a co-mingled, simultaneous experience. We need them both. Bhaya gives us just enough respect for the circumstances to have a little caution and pay attention. Abhaya invites us to go for it anyway.

I woke up the morning after the snow storm to a sparkly, radiant Fort Greene. This time, the city had planned better: the streets were plowed, the sidewalks were being uncovered, and the subways were functioning normally. Out in the park, the fearless (kids and adults alike) were sledding and crashing and doing it all over again. The city had gotten it right.

PRINCIPLES:

This class and practice is all about holding the simultaneity of opposites, of caution and fearlessness, in the place that opens the gateway to our greatest joy. Douglas always says that when you can hold two things in the same place, you are on the path to the divine.

Inner Spiral (and Thigh Loop): They key aspect of this principle that we’ll focus on here is getting the thigh bones to set back into the hip sockets. This involves a kind of stepping back, a kind of cautionary approach that creates just the right amount of respect and protection to enable you to move forward safely. However, if we take the thigh bones back without adding the next principle, we will feel blocked, as if living from the place of fear.

Outer Spiral: This

The X and Y Axes, and the Bindu Where They Meet

I just spent two weeks in Peru leading a yoga retreat with Jordan Mallah, and during that time I had the extraordinary experience of being led through a new year’s ritual by the official shaman of Machu Picchu, Kucho. As he was talking about the underlying beliefs of Incan spirituality, I had the very tripped out experience of translating for him into English words that Jordan and I had spoken to our group only a few hours before. There was so much in alignment between his worldview and our teachings, it was astounding.

One of the things that Kucho talked about was that at any given moment, our being is a point where a horizontal and vertical axis meet. The horizontal axis represents knowing, he said (translate: cit) and the vertical represents being (translate: sat). The point where they meet is the bliss of the heart (translate: ananda). Kucho explained that as our understanding and knowledge expand on the horizontal axis, we automatically get a vertical ascent in our being on the other axis; and vice versa. The first step in, he said, is the step into the heart. Once you get that, you have access to all of the other expanded levels of being and knowing. That point is really a bindu, a portal into an expanded experience.

So I went to practice this on the mat, to feel the horizontal axis as a gateway to the vertical ascent. To find the place where the two converge and expand, and open a portal into something radically different. Not surprisingly, what’s true is true, at every level.

Principles:

  • Open to Grace: You are always at that bindu point.
  • Muscle Energy: The midline is the vertical axis in the body, and hugging the midline as part of Muscle Energy gives us access to that vertical power.
  • Inner Spiral: The more power we give to the vertical midline, the more the horizontal axis can expand. Inner Spiral, as it pushes up against the action of the legs hugging the midline, creates a widening along the horizontal plane, especially from the inner thighs, the inner pelvis (iliacus) and the waistline (psoas and quadratus lumborum).
  • Outer Spiral/Organic Energy: With the lateral space created by Inner Spiral, a vertical space opens up. It’s like we’ve entered into a new dimension. With Outer Spiral, the tailbone roots down, and this also creates fuel for the extension of Organic Energy as it splits from the focal point and anchors down as well as rises up.

Practice:

  • Surya namaskar with nagini madasana (drunken cobra): In cobra pose, hug your legs to the midline, from the outer feet up through the outer ankles, shins and hips. Then turn one leg in, back and wide to open the horizontal axes. As you widen that side, lean to that side, swaying (this is why it’s been dubbed “drunken cobra”).
  • Prasarita padottanasana with twist
  • Uttanasana with twist
  • Parsvottanasana to Urdhva prasarita eka padasana (standing splits)
  • Handstand: press up into handstand by holding the top leg powerfully to the midline
  • Virabhadrasana 1
  • Parivrtta Parsvakonasana
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana
  • Brigid’s Cross
  • Anjaneyasana with thigh stretch
  • Hanumanasana
  • Virasana/Supta Virasana
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana/Krounchasana
  • Janu Sirsasana
  • Pascimottanasana

Release Practice

It’s fall cleansing time, and I have been guided in an amazing cleanse by Ayurvedic practitioner (and Certified Anusara teacher) Cate Stillman.

For me the fall cleanse is about learning to release what I am ready to release, and hence making space for something new to emerge.

This is exactly what nature is doing at this time of year. You see it in the trees, as they withdraw into themselves and discard the leaves for the winter. This is a cycle of nature, and anytime we create alignment to nature, we place ourselves in a current that encourages and supports healing, abundance, and life.

Of course, letting go is not easy. The hardest part, I find, is actually figuring out what it is that needs to be released. It requires a softening so that we can listen and attune to what is being spoken from the very depths of our being.In our yoga practice, there are various ways that we can support this release. At this time of year, the energy tends to get blocked and pulled up in the pelvis, which is where vata (the wind element that dominates at this time of year) is stored. By opening the pelvic floor, we can create a clearing that allows whatever we are ready to release right now to move through us.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: Our first principle invites us to listen inside and to begin to soften outside, so that the practice of release can begin. When we open to grace, we attune to nature, and participating with the flow of the breath is one of the most direct ways to do this. With each inhale, expand DOWN into the floor of the pelvis, so that the bowl of the pelvis gets heavy and opens. On your exhales, keep that space as you lengthen back up through the spine.
  • Muscle Energy: Creates the engagement necessary to initiate a practice of release.
  • Inner Spiral actively widens the pelvic floor, from the power of the inner thighs pressing in, back and wide. This allows energy to move down and out, making space for the next possibility.
  • Outer Spiral is that energy of new growth, that emerges only once we have made a clearing. In particular, Outer Spiral tones the pelvic floor muscles by the action of the tailbone scooping down and into the space created by the widening of the pelvis in Inner Spiral. It’s important to note that the tailbone can move independently of the gluteal muscles, and we need to access those deep pelvic floor muscles (levator ani, and the coccygeal muscle) in order to do Outer Spiral without blocking the release downward. If the thigh bones press forward when you add Outer Spiral, it blocks vata in the pelvis. To keep the thighs back, you need to create more lateral space with Inner Spiral and isolate the muscles of the pelvic floor when engaging Outer Spiral.
  • Organic Energy: Extend actively from the focal point down into the earth, and then grow back out of the focal point.

PRACTICE:

  • Natural breath: Begin in a comfortable seat and just feel how your natural breath flows in your pelvis. Every inhale creates an expansion down into the bowl of the pelvis, and every exhale creates a natural contraction of the pelvic floor. It’s easy to feel this pulsation if you come onto hands and knees, and then bend your elbows to bring one cheek to the floor. Allowing your belly to relax here will create a suction effect so that the flow of the natural breath into the pelvis is magnified. Take several rounds of breath here.
  • Tadasana: To create release, we have to learn to settle into the earth. In tadasana, feel if one leg is more clearly plugged into the floor or, conversely, if one leg is more pulled up into the hip socket. The side that is more pulled up is going to be the side where the hip is tighter. When the energy is blocked in the pelvis like this, that’s an indicator that vata is also blocked.. To get the energy to flow down, stand on your right leg, lifting your left foot off the floor. Then shake the whole leg out as randomly as you can, letting all of the joints move. Shaking is one way to help move vata. After about 30 seconds, shake the leg out below the knee, and then just below the ankle, and then stand on both feet and feel how the energy flows down through the left leg more clearly. Do both sides.
  • Tadasana: You can access and build tone in your pelvic floor muscles by moving your tailbone from the action of the coccygeal and levator ani muscles (which are pelvic floor muscles), rather than from the butt muscles. To practice this, do tadasana with a block between your inner upper thighs. Settle into the earth, then hug into the block with your thigh muscles (Muscle Energy) and turn the inner thighs in back and wide (Inner Spiral). Bring one hand to your sacrum and slide a finger down the sacrum until you get to the tailbone, which will be the bony tip of the spine; when you do Inner Spiral, the tailbone will poke out somewhat, so it’s easier to find. With on fingertip on the bottom of the tailbone, keep your thighs back and press your tailbone down and in to your finger. If your thighs stayed back and your butt muscles didn’t grip, the muscles you’ve just used are the pelvic floor muscles.
  • Lunge pose: Come into the pose with both hands on fingertips on the earth, and turn to your breath. With your inhales expand, and with your exhales, allow yourself to settle. Notice the shape of the pelvic floor. In any asymmetrical pose, you’ll find that the pelvic floor tends to narrow on the back leg side. To create more balance and allow energy to move through the back leg more clearly, hug the legs to the midline and then add Inner Spiral, especially widening on the back leg side until you feel the floor of the pelvis broaden evenly. Then lengthen your tailbone and stretch Organic Energy from the pelvis down and out through both legs; as your pelvis and leg bones root down, stretch your lower belly and your lower back out toward the crown of your head.
  • Lunge pose variation: Begin with both hands on fingertips to the inside of the front foot, and the front foot and knee pointing at an angle off to the side. Press into your fingertips to expand the inside, and then with your exhales allow your pelvis to release heavily toward the earth. This release happens without collapsing the brightness of your inner body. Then come down to your forearms, bringing your back knee to the floor. Just like in the previous pose, the back leg and pelvis will need more of the widening component of Inner Spiral to create balance from side to side. As the back leg widens, the front leg will descend even more. Lastly, actively root down from the pelvis through the legs into the earth, and then extend your spine.
  • Surya namaskar: Pay close attention to what happens to the pelvis in cobra pose. Because it’s a backbend, the bottom of the pelvis tends to narrow, and that can jam the lower back and block the energy in the pelvis. Before you come all the way up into cobra pose, engage your legs and widen the inner thighs and pelvis apart, then lengthen your tailbone down without narrowing the pelvic floor. Then extend up into the pose.
  • Parsvottanasana, parsvakonasana, trikonasana:Practice these asymmetrical poses with a focus on the pelvic floor. Remember to create more widening through the bottom of the bowl of the pelvis on the back leg side to evenly expand the pelvis; then add length through the tailbone until you get the tone in the pelvic floor. Until you get the hang of it, it’s useful to practice these standing poses with one finger giving kinestetic awareness to the tailbone like we did in tadasana earlier.
  • Handstand: Any pose (or situation) that creates fear will tend to make the energy in the pelvis get pulled up and blocked. Handstand is just such a pose; from fear, the pelvis and thigh bones may jut forward, blocking pelvis and creating a feedback loop of more anxiety. Try handstand at the wall, about a shin’s distance away from the wall. Once you’re up, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet to the wall. Hug your legs in to parallel, and then turn your inner thighs back toward the wall and wide. Keep your inner thighs flowing back and now lengthen your tailbone up toward the ceiling, using those pelvic floor muscles that you’ve been building. Then try taking one leg away from the wall to vertical; take a breath to feel this before bringing the other foot forward to meet it.
  • Pigeon pose: Similar to the lunge pose, the back side of the pelvis will tend to narrow and the front side will get over-wide. Bring a deeper awareness to the shape of the pelvic floor, and then balance it with Inner and Outer Spiral.
  • Pigeon pose with thigh stretch: Thigh stretches, when done with good alignment, are fantastic for getting blocked energy in the pelvis to release. The key is to make sure that the back leg (the one in the thigh stretch) and hip stay broad. In this way, when you add length through the tailbone and the rooting of Organic Energy, you’ll be able to move energy down and out.
  • Anjaneyasana, with a twisted thigh stretch: Doing a thigh stretch in a twist is a great way to align the pelvis, as the form of the pose will help you to broaden the back hip. In fact, for many students who get lower back tightness in thigh stretches, doing this twisted variation often relieves that tightness. Come into anjaneyasana, with the right foot forward and the left hand on fingertips inside the front foot. Twist to the right and then bend your left foot in to hold the foot with your right hand. Feel how the back leg side widens with the twist.
  • Hanumanasana: When you come into hanumanasana, first just settle and take stock. Feel the shape of the pelvic floor and notice if the back leg side is narrowing. Sweep both legs toward each other and then broaden the back leg side until it’s more even. Now you’ll have the space to extend.
  • Setubandha, urdhva dhanurasana: Now that you have an awareness of how the pelvic floor tends to narrow in backbends, try doing some backbends with a focus on keeping the breadth across the back of the pelvis. This comes from the widening of Inner Spiral.
  • Upavista konasana, parsva upavista konasana, janu sirsasana: Start up on fingertips behind your back and inhale and expand down into the floor of the pelvis; on your exhale allow yourself to settle. When you engage the legs with Muscle Energy, make sure that it doesn’t pull you up out of this settled place. To go into the twisted form of the pose, lean and widen to the back leg side as you turn your belly over the front leg side. Again, the back side will tend to narrow, so bring more breadth there.
  • Baddha konasana: Again, start with your fingertips supporting you behind you. Lift your pelvis up off the floor and breath into the pelvis. Keeping your inner body lifted, allow your pelvis to swing gently, and then finally come down to the floor from a place of release rather than pushing into the pose. Once you’re there, then engage Muscle Energy and more actively turn the inner thighs back and wide. If you notice that once side of the pelvis is narrower than the other, widen that side more. Then bow forward.

Yoga is Cooking

As fall set in, in NYC, my beloved and I did our annual ritual this weekend of bringing home some 20 pounds of tomatoes from the farmers market to roast, simmer and store the flavors of the end of summer for chilly and bleak days later this year. While our sauces simmered on the stove, we sat back with The Financial Times and found a book review for “Catching Fire“, by Richard Wrangham, who makes the case that the practice of cooking is what makes us human. It’s by bringing food to fire that humans have evolved way beyond what would have been possible at the slow pace of natural selection.

As it happens, the yogis of the Vedas had a similar idea. As Douglas Brooks likes to remark, the word “yoga” is first used in the Rg Veda in the compound “yogakshema“, which is to say that yoga is cooking. Yoga is the process by which we take the raw ingredients of ourselves and, by bringing the fire of our passions into the fire of our practice, we can transform and transmute our being. We can evolve ourselves by means of yoga, and we can evolve ourselves at a rate that is more efficacious and efficient (the markers of Shri) than the eons it seems to take in the old Darwinian fashion. You can transform yourself in one lifetime, in one day, in one practice…

You already have all of the raw ingredients you need, so just light the fire to begin cooking!

The fire of yoga is ignited by our desire to transform and it burns as tapas, a frictive action that generates heat.

This week, we’re focusing on aligning the knees, and for that we need to light the fire of the lower legs, which tend to have less power. When the outer shins and calves are not working strongly enough, it can destabilize the knees and the hamstrings (and the hips, and the lower back…). When the shins do their tapas with a steady flame, it will help protect and align the knees as well as allow a transformative opening through the hamstrings.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: In this tradition, we begin with the assumption that each of us has everything we need for our own fulfillment. All of the raw materials are there for you to make something exquisite and uniquely your own.
  • Muscle Energy: The second component of Muscle Energy draws the limbs toward the vertical midline of the body. In terms of aligning and protecting the knees and hamstrings, we’ll need to activate the outer shins (using the peroneal muscles) to the midline. This begins by spreading the pinky toes laterally and pulling back through the outer heel. Interestingly, because of the way the peroneals are oriented, they also cause a spinning of the outer shins toward the back plane of the body. This is a fiery act of tapasya, and must remain steadfast to keep the knees and hamstrings aligned.
  • Shin Loop: This loop reinforces the Muscle Energy of the calf muscles on the back of the shin, drawing the calves up and pressing the top of the shin forward. It protects the knee from hyperextending, and hence helps protect the cartilage and avoid those broken veins and cysts that can develop in the backs of the knees.
  • Inner Spiral: Once the lower legs have engaged fully, then you can activate the transformative power of Inner Spiral, which turns the legs in, back and wide apart. The lower legs have to remain strong in their tapas as you do Inner Spiral; that means that the heels still have to squeeze the midline (it’s common for them to widen, which indicates that the shins lost their engagement). You can manually widen the backs of the legs by grabbing hold of the fibers of all 3 hamstring muscles from behind and broadening them into the resistance of the shins. Try this in just one forward bend (uttanasana, parsvottanasana, you name it) and you will feel like you’ve made an evolutionary leap in a matter of 30 seconds.
  • Organic Energy: As always, we end with expansion.

PRACTICE:

  • Tadasana: First, bend your knees enough so that you can feel the 4 corners of your feet (big toe mound, inner heel, baby toe mound and outer heel) rooting evenly into the earth. Then keeping them rooted, lifted and spread your toes to activate the muscles of the legs. Pay special attention to lighting the fire in your lower legs, then stretch your legs fully straight.
  • Uttanasana: Just this one pose will make a powerful transformation in your legs. Touch the floor with fingertips and then bend your knees just as you did in tadasana, to feel the weight into your feet evenly and to track your kneecaps straight ahead with the 2nd toe mounds. Then lift and spread your toes. As your pinky toes spread to the sides draw back through the outer foot toward your outer heel; this fires the peroneal muscles, which stabilize the outer shins to the midline. Keeping your lower legs strongly hugging the midline, reach you hands behind your legs to grab hold of the hamstring muscles and draw them wide apart into the resistance of your shins. You heels and kneecaps should remain stable as you widen. This will keep the knees tracked and line up the hamstrings so that they can have a clear opening.
  • Lunges: On your back leg, notice which part of the leg tends to straighten fastest. The top of the shin is the most mobile part of the leg, and so will push back (locking the knee) if there’s not a strong muscular action through the calf muscle. Bend the knee to engage the calf, by pressing down into the big toe mound, then stretch the leg straight from the root of the thigh bone.
  • Prasarita padottanasana: I’ve been working with starting out this pose with the knees slightly bent, just to get more action in the lower legs. Press into all 4 corners of the feet, and then spread your pinky toes to the sides and back toward the outer heels. This provides a strong resistance for the opening of the hamstrings as you send the inner thighs back and wide. Use your hands to open the hamstrings if you need. For you adventurous yogis, use this action to attempt a press handstand from prasarita padottanasana, standing on blocks if you need extra height. (It works!) When you lift up onto the balls of your feet, notice how the outer feet tend to drop; use your pinky toes spreading and pulling up to give you the fire you need to press up.
  • Parsvakonasna: Try this pose with your hand on the inside of the foot, to give the shin something to press up against. Then push hard with your arm back against the shin to widen the thigh. You can do the inverse with the hand outside the foot, turning your elbow (the knobby epicondyle) up against the outer shin to increase the fire there, then use your inner thigh to widen and open the back of the leg. Make sure that the kneecap stays pointing straight ahead throughout.
  • Trikonasana: In this pose, I like walking my hand on fingertips under the front shin, and that way I get a lot more leverage using the arm to squeeze the leg to the midline. Notice if just from that you get a deeper opening in the front leg.
  • Virabhadrasana 2 (tracking the knee): Start in prasarita padottanasana and turn your right leg out in preparation for Vira 2. Before you bend the knee, lift and spread your toes and ignite the outer shins to the midline. Then as you bend your knee, track the kneecap in line over the 2nd toe mound (notice if it tends to knock in or stray to the side). Go all the way to 90 degrees, and then come back up again. Do several sets. This is one of the most effective ways to track the ligaments of the knees, and since it’s weight-bearing, if done in good alignment it is a powerful pose for healing the knees. (You can also do a variation of this non-weight-bearing. Sit on the floor and use your hands to hold the outer shin to the midline while simultaneously pressing the inner thigh, right above the knee, wide into the shin’s resistance. Bend and straighten the leg with this manual tracking.)
  • Uttanasana (on blanket roll): Doing uttanasana with the ball of your feet up on a blanket roll will help you activate the shin loop/calf muscles. Start with your knees bent, and press into the big toe mounds as if you could lift up onto the balls of your feet; you’ll feel the calves tone and lift up. Now keep them steady as you anchor the tops of your thighs back. This will prevent hyperextension in all of the straight legged poses (try parsvottanasana and trikonasana the same way).
  • Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog): In dog pose, bend your knees and notice what happens if you bend and straighten the legs without mindfully trying to create alignment. In particular, notice if the kneecaps knock in when the knees bend, and also what part of the leg moves back fastest when you straighten the legs (if it’s the top of the shin, you’ll know that it’s pushing into hyperextension). Then bend the knees again and track the kneecaps over the 2nd toes. Create a steady fire through the outer shins by spreading the pinky toes, and then through the back of the calf by pressing into the mounds of the big toes. Keeping that, turn the inner knees in, back and wide as you stretch the legs straight.
  • In preparation for virasana, add in a thigh stretch (i.e., in pigeon pose) and a calf stretch (i.e., holding the backs of your calves and drawing them up as you extend in uttanasana).
  • Virasana and supta virasana: This is one of the trickiest poses for the knees, but as is often the case, the most perilous poses also have the greatest potential for healing. If you know you have cartilage damage in the knee, it’s nice to put a spacer behind the knee so there’s more room. If you have any ligament damage, the spacer is not recommended (because you want stability, not space); instead, focus on spreading the pinky toes and firing the outer shins to the midline. When the feet are aligned in virasana, it will go a long way toward protecting the knees. First line up the thigh bones so they are parallel, and the kneecaps point straight ahead. Make sure that you have a straight line going down the middle of the shin through the middle of the heel and the 2nd toe mound, with the inner ankle pressing up against your hips; this is straight alignment for the knees, but you’ll notice that the feet will be slightly angled away from the hips. If this alignment is hard to create, sit up on some padding and then use your hands to mold the feet toward alignment. Squeeze the outer ankle toward the midline as you widen the ball of your foot and spread the pinky toes to the side. Then use your hands to turn up the flame on the outer shins, squeezing them toward the midline.
  • Upavista konasana: It’s common to feel a little tweakiness in the inner knee in this pose. That usually happens when the outer shins lose their engagement to the midline. When you set up the pose, point the kneecaps and 2nd toe mounds straight up toward the sky. Then activate the shins to the midline without the knees rolling in. Press the inner knees toward the earth and then widen the thighs into the resistance of your shins.
  • Janu sirsasana: This is one of the more challenging poses to do if you have a knee injury. Often, the pain occurs when we get pulled up out of the back hip, which puts stress on the knee. So when you bend the knee in for the pose, lean to the bent leg side to get the hip to release down. Fire the pinky toes by spreading them into the earth until you get the outer ankle to lift away from the floor. That’s good action in the shin and will protect the knee as you open the hip with Inner Spiral. When you turn over the front leg, keep weight to your inner back thigh so that the hip stays released.
  • Baddha konasana (on a block): Bring your baddha konasana feet up onto a block, so the outer edges of your feet are supported along the length of the block (medium setting). Use your hands behind you to lift up into baddha konasana, with your hips off the floor. Spread your toes, especially your pinky toes, so they press into the block and get your outer heels and outer ankles to tone. You may be feeling a fire in your outer shins already. Now walk your hands in front of you, keeping the feet that active. Slowly turn the inner thighs in and back behind you, so the pelvis moves closer toward the earth.
  • Mulabandhasana: You can go straight into mulabandhasana from this form of baddha koansana. Believe it or not, this pose is great on the knees, because the shins have no choice but to powerful squeeze the midline. Pressing your pinky toes into the block, tip the block forward so that the balls of your feet touch the earth and the block stands vertically between your feet and your pelvis. As you press the block forward into the outer edges of your feet, it will be hugging the shins to their midline (that’s forward), which then stabilizes the knees and allows the inner thighs to move back and descend.

Building a pillar of support

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Listen to the full class by using the audio player.

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.

PRACTICE:

  • 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 fours 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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