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Category Archive for ‘Muscle Energy’ rss

Finding the Sacred in the Everyday

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.

PRINCIPLES:

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.

PRACTICE:

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.


Synergies

I just came back from 10 days in Vancouver Island, surrounded by primary rain forests shrouded in mists, and getting to know the waters and the whales. While there (in Tofino), I went on several tours with the guides from Remote Passages, all of whom shared a deep commitment to the health of this unique ecosystem and a deep understanding of the synergistic relationships between all the different parts of the ecosystem. One guide explained how the cedars, some of which are upwards of 2000 years old, are able to grow so tall and live so long because of nitrates that they receive from salmon who swim upriver in this season and die on the banks, in the jaws of predators, so that their nitrates filter back into the earth and the trees’ roots.

After a couple of days, I was more attuned to these connections and to how my own presence touched and intersected everything around me. By the end of the trip, even though I had been traveling alone, I felt embraced and held in a web of relationships, and this translated into a sense of groundedness and ease.

Spending time close to nature will do this: if you just pay the slightest attention, you can’t help but be reminded that you are always in relationship with everything around you, and you are always connected to something much greater than your self. True isolation, as the Tantrikas claim, is not really possible, even though we certainly can feel isolated or alienated at times. When that happens, we just need to pause and reaffirm our greater connections.

This got me thinking about the Nerd, and the way in which we practice in the Nerd. The whole point of this class (and blog) is to draw a narrow focus to one particular aspect of our practice – a principle, a muscle, a class of poses – and look at it from every angle possible, bringing it more into the light and infusing it with power. I obviously believe there is extraordinary value to this kind of focus; I love practicing this way. But if the action or muscle we’re focusing on ends up isolated from the greater context of the practice, our practice ends up hardening, becoming rigid.

So we always have to see how the principles we’re focusing on relate to the greater context. Anusara’s principles are designed as a systematic, sequential and progressive unfolding of actions, and all of them work in relationship to all of the rest of them. If we try to do them in isolation, they are not really effective; it would be like removing the salmon from the cedars’ life cycle – the whole process breaks down.

With that in mind, over the next several weeks, I’m going to work through the energy loops of the body, starting with the foundation so that we can build the entire cycle from the ground up and feel the relationships among all of the principles.

It starts, always, with Opening to Grace, opening to the greater context of our lives, and feeling held in that web of relationships that is always embracing us.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: Our first principle invites us to set the foundation of the pose mindfully, with respect for the way we touch the earth because this represents how we place ourselves in the context of something bigger than ourselves. On many signs in nature preserves, there’s the instruction to “leave only footprints”; may we tread with respect and love on the earth. When you set the foundation of the feet, line them up parallel from the middle of the ankles through the second toe mounds. All four corners of the feet (big toe mound, inner heel, baby toe mound and outer heel) evenly release into the earth. This passive release with gravity that’s part of Opening to Grace is the feeling of letting yourself be held by something greater than yourself. This is the context for everything else.
  • Muscle Energy connects all of the parts of our being, so that we feel ourselves as an ecosystem, where every piece has a role to play. It draws the parts of our being into relationship by hugging concentrically from skin to muscle to bone, hugging the limbs to the midline, and engaging from the peripheral parts to the core.
  • Ankle Loop: The energy loops are refinements of the larger context of the dynamic pulse of Muscle and Organic Energy. Ankle Loop is the foundational loop (when the feet are on the floor, at least), providing a kind of root system for the body. If the Ankle Loop isn’t activated, none of the other energy loops will be effective, because they all must work in relationship to each other. This loop begins at the base of the shin bones, just above the ankle bones, and draws back and down, so the back of the heel roots into the earth. Then it travels up through the center of the arches and reconnects at the base of the shin.
  • Shin Loop: This builds on the foundation of the Ankle Loop. Shin loop also starts at the base of the shin, where it has a juncture with the Ankle Loop, and then flows back and up the back of the shin, so the calf muscles hug to the bones and push the top of the shin forward. The front side of Shin Loop flows down and reconnects to the juncture point with Ankle Loop. To activate the Shin Loop, you have to activate the calf muscles, and the easiest access point for this is to press into the mound of the big toe. When we do this, however, the heel will tend to get light (as if you were coming up on high heels) unless we remember the connection to the Ankle Loop (which roots the back of the heel down). We must hold the two in relationship. If the heels get light, it will tend to make the hip flexors bind, as the femur pulls up into the hip socket; also, the healing properties of these loops for hamstring attachment tears is lost if the Ankle Loop is lost.
  • Organic Energy: This last principle takes the sense of wholeness of our own being and connects it back to the world around us, so we don’t end up feeling isolated in our practice. It extends from the focal point (mostly the pelvis here) down through the bones (of the legs) into the earth, and then extends from the focal point back up through the rest of the body (torso, head and arms).

PRACTICE:

  • Tadasana: Line up the feet parallel, and then just feel the weight of the feet into the earth. Notice if one leg feels more plugged in and connected. The leg that’s uprooted will be the side where the hip is tighter. Now bend both knees and release evenly with gravity through all four corners of both feet. Lift your toes and engage the legs fully, hugging all of the muscles evenly to the bones, holding to the midline, and engaging from the feet up into the pelvis. As you draw up from the feet, stretch the legs straight, keeping the muscles toned and the weight balanced on your feet. Keeping the legs strong, now anchor your pelvis down with your hands, so you re-connect to the earth through the legs and feet, and then extend up through your lower belly and spine.
  • Uttanasana: Notice how your weight falls into the feet when you bow forward. Look at the relationship between the top of your thigh (greater trochanter), the middle of the knee, and the ankle bones: when the line connecting these three points is vertical, that’s a straight and aligned leg. Oftentimes, you’ll find that the knee and the hip (or just the knee) sit back behind the ankle. To build healthier relationships in the legs, we start at the beginning. Bend the knees to back out of the pose (Open to Grace) and get all four corners of the feet to evenly root down. Now engage the legs fully (Muscle Energy), lifting and spreading your toes. Keeping the knees bent and the legs active, drag the base of the shin back to initiate the lower loops. As the base of the shins go back, anchor your heels down and simultaneously press through the mounds of the big toes to activate the calf muscles. Then, with both the Ankle and Shin Loop established, straighten your legs fully, from the roots of the thigh bones, and extend Organic Energy from the pelvis down into the earth and long through your spine.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: In downward-facing dog, getting the heels to the floor is often seen as an “ideal” form, but the extension through the heels must be in balanced relationship to the rest of the body. If the heels stretch down without a synergistic tone in the calf muscles, you’ll be pushing the legs into hyperextension, which creates a short-circuit in the ecosystem of your body (the hip flexors respond by tightening, the hamstring attachments can get overstretched, and the lower back will tend to round). Try dog pose just like we did in uttanasana, starting with the knees bent and legs strong; drag the base of the shins back without straightening your knees and then root down through the heels as you press strongly into the mounds of the big toes. The heels should go down only as much as the calf muscles draw up.
  • Adho mukha svanasana variation: Try this one leg at a time, using your other foot hooked around the Achilles tendon (between the big toe and second toe) to help engage the Ankle Loop while you draw the calf muscles up strongly. Then stretch the leg fully straight.
  • Parsvottanasana: Often I’ve practiced this pose for Ankle and Shin Loops with a blanket under the ball of the foot, but in Tofino I didn’t have the right prop for this, so I just did it with the foot flat on the floor. I was amazed to find that I actually got more power through the loops, probably because of the full connection to the floor. Get the foundation set, then engage the legs fully. Keeping all of the muscles hugging to the bones, on the front leg pull the base of the shin back. (Remember the Ankle Loop starts at the base of the shin, so it’s not really the heel that draws back.) As you do, ground down through the back of the heel and press into the mound of the big toe simultaneously to fire up the calves. Then stretch the leg fully straight and extend Organic Energy down and out.
  • Trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: Because the front foot is pointed, trikonasnana, will feel much like parsvottanasana, in terms of the importance of the lower body loops. Work it like we did above. In ardha chandrasana, the key is to use the lower loops to avoid locking the knee (which would again short-circuit the balance of relationships in the legs).
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana: Try the prep pose, where you bring one leg in and hold the front of the shin (knee bent, rather than straight leg) or, even better, holding the outer edge of the foot (knee bent, standing down through the foot into your hand). Activate both feet, tone all of the muscles, and then engage the lower loops. The lower leg will act like ardha chandrasana and needs the lower loops to prevent hyper-extension. The top leg will feel totally different. Try dragging the base of the shin back into the resistance of your hand, and notice how it opens space in your hip.
  • Deep, wide lunge: Step one foot forward and wide, to the outside of your hands (you can turn the foot out at an angle to clear the hip joint a little more). Settle into your foundation, so you feel the support of the earth. Then engage the legs. Feel how on the front leg side, when you activate the  Ankle Loop by drawing the base of the shin back, it connects and opens deep in the pelvis.
  • Surya namaskar: Play with this in plank pose, caturanga, and especially cobra pose.
  • Thigh stretches: In any of the thigh stretches, you’ll get a deeper and more connected stretch if you work the lower loops. (I know, it may seem counter-intuitive, but so does the idea that the salmon make the trees grow bigger and live longer…) Always hold the top of your foot (not the toes) when you do a thigh stretch. Think about it: if you’re pushing on your toes, you’re creating reverse Ankle Loop, which will have repercussions all the way up into the hip. So press down into your foot as you flex your toes back, creating ankle loop in much the same way you did with a pointed foot in trikonasana and notice how that changes the whole ecosystem of the pose.
  • Malasana
  • Pigeon pose, variation with the front shin parallel: Flex the front foot, so you’ll have more access to feel the Ankle Loop.
  • Baby cradle: This is a great pose to feel the relationship between the Ankle Loop and the opening of the hips and lower back. Because the foot’s in the air, you’ll have to provide your own resistance for the Ankle Loop, so that the base of the shin can pull down energetically without moving in space.
  • Agni stambasana
  • Upavista konasana: In all of the seated forward bends, watch the feet and pay close attention to how your foundation (the whole back of the leg) engages the earth. In the full pose here, the Achilles tendons will be on the floor, as will the heels (and the entire inseam of the thighs). Start with a passive release into the foundation, then tone the legs fully, so all sides of the legs hug to the bones and draw up toward the core in the pelvis. Then, flexing the feet, press the base of the shins to the floor as the heels and mounds of the big toes extend long.
  • Baddha konasana
  • Happy baby

Life Becomes Sadhana

I took the red-eye home from out West the other night, and spent the whole day with a persistent stiffness in my neck. No surprise, really, as the way those seats on airplanes are designed (you know what I mean, with the padding behind the head that pushes your head and neck into a stressful forward carriage) is not optimal, to say the least.

Luckily (I told myself) I know Anusara Yoga therapeutic principles for the neck, and set about lining things up just so: expand the inner body, make curve in the neck, take the upper arms and throat back, curl the head back and extend. The stiffness went away immediately, but every time I let the alignment go, it came right back. And so I found myself in the same state of wonderment that students often report to me. Usually the exchange goes something like this: “You mean I have to stand like this all the time?” Well, yes. And sure enough, by the end of the day the neck pain was gone and I had a new revelation, not about the neck (although it was indeed feeling good), but about sadhana.

Sadhana is the term for spiritual practice (it literally means “that which takes you to your goal”), and around this time the practices that I was trying to keep up with were taking up 5-6 hours of every day. The revelation I got, standing there with my neck lined up and asking myself “You mean I have stand like this all the time?” was that sadhana is something that I can practice every moment, rather than thinking of it as a separate “practice” that I do only at certain times. Sadhana, eventually, is living and acting and choosing always with your highest goal(s) in your mind and heart. You don’t get days off (as my teacher Paul Muller-Ortega likes to remind us). Sadhana just becomes your whole life.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: is a remembrance that we can step into sadhana in every moment. With this first principle, the breath expands the inner body, lengthening up through the sides of the torso and up through the sides of the throat, into the dome of the palate. Lift your chin to help create  a natural lordotic curve in the neck.
  • Muscle Energy: This is the active engagement of sadhana. The alignment of the neck is directly affected by the alignment of the shoulder girdle. With Muscle Energy, the upper arms set back into the shoulder sockets, and this creates support in the shoulders. In addition, the top of the throat slides back (right where the hyoid bone is) so that the head and neck are in line over the spine. When you do this action, make sure that the chin doesn’t drop and that the back of the neck doesn’t flatten. It’s just a realignment of the head/neck (think of them moving back as a unit) over the torso. You’ll naturally feel an inner dignity when you stand this way, and it will also create a toning through the lower belly.
  • Shoulder Loop: Once the muscles of the neck are toned, Shoulder Loop reinforces the lordotic curve of the neck. It begins in the soft palate and curls the head back. The muscles of the back of the neck, from the base of the occiput flow down toward the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and into the heart.
  • Skull Loop: The Skull Loop adds extension through the neck, but DOES NOT FLATTEN the curve in the neck. Like Shoulder Loop, it initiates at the soft palate and flows back toward the occiput, then lifts the back of the skull up and over the crown of the head. When the Shoulder and Skull Loop are in balance, there’s a split of energy from the occiput in two directions: the skin of the neck will flow down and the skin of the back of the skull will flow up.
  • Organic Energy: With Organic Energy, there’s an extension from the active focal point first down into the earth and then up and out. The head and neck lengthen evenly toward the crown of the head, making space and freeing the neck.

PRACTICE:

  • Tadasana: Work through the five principles listed above in tadasana. Oftentimes, you’ll feel the place of alignment more clearly if you allow yourself to first relax into a form that is misaligned, with the head and neck jutting forward (some body workers call this “forward carriage”). Then lift on the inside, including through the chin, so the neck has a natural curve.  Slide the arm bones and the top of the throat back simultaneously, so that they line up over your pelvis. With this action, you’ll feel the lower belly tone and lift. Then add the refinements of the loops and extend.
  • Surya namaskar: I often see students (and find myself) moving through this sequence with the head and neck forward of the torso and the rest of the spine. In plank/caturanga, perhaps it’s just the weight of the head that pulls it forward. In cobra, I think the tendency to look down comes from watching the alignment of the hands, or maybe trying to fill in the back body. But if the head and neck trail the upper body in this transition, it will pull on the neck (we call it reverse Shoulder Loop, when the armbones are back but the head and neck are jutting forward). Move through the sequence keeping attention on natural curve in the neck supported by the strength of sliding the throat back. In the transition to cobra pose, lift your head off the floor as your upper arms lift, and then curl into the pose from the action of taking the throat back. Once you’re at the peak of the pose, curl your head back to access more Shoulder Loop.
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana: In dog pose (and any pose when the arms are in the overhead plane), the head and neck should be in line with the upper arm bones. Notice if your tendency is to let the head and neck drop, or perhaps to lift your head up higher than your arms. Start in the pose by expanding the inside and softening the outside (at first, you can let the head and neck release). Then as you engage Muscle Energy in the arms, lift the upper arms above your ears, and then lift your neck/ears line line with your upper arms. Then add the loops and Organic Energy.
  • Adho Mukha Vrksasana: Handstand is an arms-in-the-overhead-plane pose, and so it’s just like downward-facing dog in this way. Practice handstand with your heels on the wall, even if you can balance on your own, to work with the neck more specifically. First let the head and neck release, then as you claw your fingertips into the floor, move the upper arms toward the wall and your throat/skull toward the wall, until you feel the tone in your lower belly. Then curl the head back to engage the shoulders (Shoulder Loop) more actively.
  • Parsvakonasana
  • Trikonasana
  • Vrksasana
  • Salabhasana: All of the variations of salabhasana are fabulous for strengthening the neck in alignment. Try doing several of them in sequence (hands clasped behind your back, arms to the sides in gecko/cactus arms, arms straight alongside the body with the palms facing down, hands clasped behind your skull). In each one, when you draw the upper arms back, also lift your head and neck (keeping natural curve) off the floor, and then power the lift into the pose from moving the throat back.
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana 1 with thigh stretch
  • Ustrasana: These backbends are among the most challenging for the neck, as the influence of gravity will tend to pull the head toward the floor faster than the neck, creating a shortening of the back of the neck (that sometimes feels like you can’t breathe). Start standing on your knees upright, in the prep form of the pose, and work through the principles here. You should feel the lower belly tone when you engage Muscle Energy through the throat. As you curl back into the pose, move the head and neck back at an even rate.
  • Setubandha
  • Urdhva Dhanurasana: Start by going up to the top of your head and pause there. Expand with your breath and as you draw the upper arms back into the shoulder sockets, drag your head back isometrically toward your heels to engage the back of the throat. On your way up into the pose, curl your head back, so you are looking toward your feet. If you look up toward your chest, it creates that reverse shoulder loop that can be very stressful on the neck and shoulders. Then once in the pose, work through all of the principles again. Note that this is a pose where the arms in the overhead plane, so you can play with the relationship between your upper arms and your neck and ears; when they’re lined up, you’ll get a lot of power in the pose and it will be very clearing in the neck
  • Pascimottanasana: It’s incredible to me how important the alignment of the neck is to opening a deep seated forward bend like pascimottanasana. It just goes to show how sadhana is always active (no poses off!). Also, it’s an overhead plane pose for the arms, so the alignment in the shoulders and neck should be just like in downward-facing dog. Hold the tops of your feet, lift up on the inside (even so the armpits float up) and then draw the upper arms back. As the arm bones set back, line up your throat/head with the upper arms. Then bend your elbows and pull yourself into the pose.

How to vanquish a demon: Devour it

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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.

Principles:

  • 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…

Practice:

  • 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.
  • Vasistasana
  • 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.
  • Setubandha
  • 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.

Inner Poise, Outer Posture

Play

Listen to the full class by using the audio player.

In re-reading Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to prepare for Immersion Part 2, I got to delight again in the myth of the two great sages Patanjali and Vyagarapada in their quest for yoga. This is a long and lovely myth, and the portion of the story that ignited me this time was thinking about how the yoga each sage received was so very different.

When the two meet at worship at the linga in the pine forest, the linga explodes into the form of the dancing Lord Shiva as Nataraja. Patanjali sits on Shiva’s left side, the side of occlusion where his arm conceals his heart and his leg crosses in front of his body; and he learns a yoga that turns him back inward. Vyagarapada, the tiger-pawed sage, sits on Shiva’s right side, the open invitation into an expansive heart, and he learns the yoga that turns him back into the world. The difference wasn’t in the teachings offered, but on what each was capable of receiving.

The point is that the asana (the seat of the self) that we take when we approach anything in life matters greatly. And the asana, of course, is more than the physical seat. It’s all of the assumptions that we bring about life, about ourselves, about the world, to what we’re doing.

In the practice of Anusara Yoga, the most basic assumption that we take is that each one of us is inherently perfect, grace taken form. This is the inner posture or inner seat of our practice. If we start from this perspective, it will make a difference in how we engage everything else in life. Just think about it for a moment: what would it really look like, how would it shift your experience, if you just began from an inner posture of your own greatness, of yourself as divine?

Anusara Yoga then uses principles of alignment to create an outer posture that reflects and celebrates this inner nature. Today we’re going to work on constructing that outer posture on top of the inner poise of the self. In particular, we’ll work on building the strength of the rhomboid muscles, which are key to holding our outer posture in the shoulders.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: This is the inner stance of greatness, an inner poise that expands you with light. When you take this stance on the inside, you’ll naturally stand taller in yourself, and the inner body extends tall, so that the shoulders are square across from the base of the neck to the upper arms.
  • Muscle Energy: In all positions, when you engage Muscle Energy from the periphery to the core, the heads of the arm bones (the upper part of the arm bones) will move to the back plane of the body, setting the bones into their optimal alignment in the shoulder sockets. At the same time, the shoulder blades hug firmly toward each other until they are flat on the back.
  • Shoulder Loop begins at the palate and curls the head back, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades down and into the heart and then lifting the front of the sternum and chest. One of the key muscle groups to activate the Shoulder Loop is the rhomboids, which connect the upper spine to the inner rim of the scapulae, along with the trapezius. Together, they help get the curling active of the shoulder blades down and into the heart, as the front of the chest lifts. When the rhomboids are weak, the arm bones tend to slump forward and diminish the light of our posture. When the rhomboids are activated, you stand taller in yourself.

PRACTICE:

    • Tadasana: Take your stance of yoga, where you are poised in yourself. Lengthen the sides of your torso until your shoulders are more level across, and then allow yourself to settle. Connect the upper arms back until you feel the muscle between your shoulder blades fire; these are the rhomboids, and we’ll use them as we go deeper into the Shoulder Loop.
    • Lunge pose with cactus arms: To really feel the rhomboids, start with your elbows bent out to the sides (cactus arms). Expand with breath and draw the upper arms back, hugging the shoulder blades flat on the back. Now, imagine that your hands were holding onto a bar (you can even curl your fingertips around that imaginary bar to get more leverage on this thought experiment). Keeping the shoulder blades flat on the back, activate your arms and shoulders as if you were doing up a pull-up on the bar. As you pull with your hands down, then bottom tips of the shoulder blades will dive into the heart, and your chest will curl and lift up. That’s the Shoulder Loop. Now stretch your arms overhead.
    • Parvattasana: Standing in tadasana, interlace your fingers on the top of your head. Stand tall in yourself and then draw the upper arms back, hugging the shoulder blades flat on the back (make sure you’re not just drawing your elbows back). Then engage the bottom tips of the shoulder blades down your back into the heart, using that same “pull-up” action. Then extend the arms overhead, keeping the fingers interlaced and the shoulder blades flat on the back. Root down from your pelvis through your legs into the earth, and then extend up tall.
    • Parsvakonasana, cactus arm: In the set up for parsvakonasana, bring your top arm into cactus position, as this will help you to feel the powerful action of the rhomboids. Expand tall with breath, and then draw the upper arm back, until you feel the shoulder blades hugging flat on the back. Lift your chin and curl your head back. Again, imagine that your fingers could curl around a bar to give you leverage to draw the shoulder blades down the back and into the heart; open your chest and then stretch your arm alongside your ear. Keep the shoulder blade moving down and into the upper back even as you stretch your arm overhead. Take a few breaths in downward facing dog to feel the difference between the two sides even just from that one pose.
    • Adho mukha svanasana (flossing): Try dog pose beginning with cactus arms, so you can access the rhomboids more clearly. With the elbows wide, expand with breath, lift your upper arms and squeeze the shoulder blades flat on the back. Keep your shoulder blades hugging in toward the midline and up into your heart, and then stretch the pose fully, from your heart down and out through straight arms and then back through your legs. “Flossing” is a hygienic practice of moving back and forth between the cactus-arm and straight-arm variations of downward-facing dog; if you can keep your shoulder blades hugging flat on the back as you extend, whatever gums up your shoulder joints will begin to loosen and release.
    • Handstand (flossing): You can do the same thing in handstand. I recommend going to a wall. Bending your elbows out to the sides in handstand, squeeze the midline to get your rhomboids to fire, and then stretch from your heart center DOWN through straight arms. The greater weight-bearing will make this an even more powerful shoulder opener than downward-facing dog.
    • Salabhasana pull-ups: For this one, you either need a friend or a bar, although I think it probably works better with a friend. Start laying on your belly with your arms outstretched overhead. Your friend will stand with fee planted on either side of your pelvis. Expand with breath, and then pull energy from your hands up through your arms all the way into the core of the pelvis; as you do, the upper arms will lift and set back into the shoulder sockets. Keeping that, lift your hand off the floor so your arms are overhead, alongside your ears; here, your partner should grab hold of your wrists from over the top of your hands (and you hold on to their wrists, too). Keep your upper arms moving to the back plane of the body as they lift you up to a more vertical position in your upper body (like cobra pose would be). To give your rhomboids a work out, you can start doing pull-ups with their support; keeping your chin lifted, draw down on their hands, all the way through the shoulders, until you feel the shoulder blades move down the back, then lift the front of your chest and curl back into a backbend. Then, keeping your shoulder blades diving down the back, stretch your arms straight (you’ll be hanging off the “bar”). Your partner will probably have to walk back and adjust their stance with each pull-up, as you’ll go deeper into a backbend each time.
    • Bhujangasana: OK. Now you have a deep experience of the Shoulder Loop. In cobra pose, the actions are the same. The only difference is that your hands are on the floor, rather than in cactus form, but to get the shoulder blades to curl into the upper back, you have to do that same pull-up action. Try it!
    • Thigh stretches to prepare for backbends, or whatever other warm up you need.
    • Urdhva dhanurasana: It all comes together here. Go up into wheel pose and just pause and turn to your breath. Now bend your elbows to the side, like the cactus form. With your elbows to the sides, plug the upper arms back into the shoulder sockets and squeeze the shoulder blades flat on the back. Keeping that, as you straighten your arms, pull energy up from your fingertips through the shoulders and into the core of the pelvis. The shoulder blades should lift up your back here (that’s the pull up), and that will open your the backbend more fully.

Upavista konasana

  • Janu sirsasana: Even in the seated poses, we want to keep the inner stance full and expanded, so that you could see yourself from a reflecting pool below, you would be just as poised as in tadasana. If you can hold your front foot with both hands, do so. Expand and lengthen with your breath, again so that your shoulders are square across in line with the bottom of your neck. Lift your upper arms and elbows in line with your ears, and bend your elbows out to the sides (like cactus arms, even though you’re holding your foot). From this position, you’ll be able to engage the shoulders more fully onto the back. Then lift your head up in line with your arms and use the resistance of your hands on your foot to pull the shoulder blades deeper into the heart. Then extend from your pelvis out through the legs and draw your whole spine long.
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