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Category Archive for ‘Organic Energy’ rss

Building a pillar of support

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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.

Seeding your consciousness

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Last week, I went to the High Line for the first time since it re-opened as a public space, and I was enchanted.

For those of you who are not New Yorkers (or who are New Yorkers but haven’t been out there yet), the High Line is an 8-block-long urban paradise running a few stories above 10th Avenue. Years ago, it was a railroad track that connected Penn Station to the docks, but it fell into disuse as the city grew up, and over many years was just allowed to lay fallow. During that time, nature took over and it turned into a great wilderness above the city, with wildflowers and grasses and trees sprouting up.

Urban planners have now turned this wilderness into one of the most ambitious, varied and forward-looking gardens in the country, with more than 200 species of plant life, surprising views of the city and the water, bees doing their work, and just a wonderful time.

While I was up there, it got me thinking about how the process of seeding, nourishment, growth and flowering (a.k.a. the process of yoga) is a completely natural process. Even without our participation, it’s remarkable how much can happen: every experience we have plants a seed in our consciousness, and some of these seeds sprout and grow and flower, and others lay fallow, and some lay fallow maybe for years and then sprout in unexpected places.

However, without our participation, our consciousness can be just like a wilderness, and not necessarily the kind of wilderness that we would want to inhabit. In fact, the old High Line (according to a student of mine) was not such a great place to be: it was overrun with insidious species that crowded out everything else.

The invitation of yoga is to bring a little culture to this wilderness, just like the High Line. To put up boundaries, cultivate certain seeds, and choose to let others lie fallow. By yoga, we cultivate the garden of our consciousness, to make it the kind of garden that we would want to inhabit.

The good news is that, even with just a little encouragement (water, sun), nature will do its thing. (I’m thinking of the Pangea products’ boxes, which are actually seeds; all you have to do is put them in some soil outside and they will sprout.) It requires only minimal effort, a gentle nudge (called “utsaha“) to start nature’s processes going. When we bring our engagement to nature, it will sprout and seed in wondrous ways.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: Yoga is allowing the very natural process of the seeding and flowering of your consciousness the space and room to grow. The breath is the embodied form of vayu (the wind), which carries the seeds into our awareness. This first principle connects us to the natural flow of the breath, which is pretty effective even without our participation. By engaging in ujjayi breath, with bring cultivation to the breath’s natural flow.
  • Muscle Energy: is the energy of nourishing those seeds that we want to cultivate, that we want to see grow and flower. One of the aspects of Muscle Energy is that it draws from the peripheral parts of the body toward the core, the place of seed potential in the body that we call the “focal point.” There are three focal points in the body (the core of the pelvis, the heart center, and the soft palate) and in any given pose, there is one active focal point (the one that is most weight-bearing).
  • Organic Energy: is the energy of life sprouting and growing, of seeds taking root and stretching toward the sun. It moves from the active focal point down into the earth first, and then from the focal point back up and out (just like seeds, which send roots down before their grow upward). These principles of alignment follow the natural processes of nature.

PRACTICE:

  • Tadasana: This is a great place to feel the pelvic focal point, which is active in all of the standing poses (and seated poses, and supine poses). First, just let the breath expand you from inside out. Then bring your hands to your hips. Lift your toes and engage the legs, from your feet into the core of the pelvis (it’s in line with the bottom of your sacrum and the lower belly). Keeping the muscles strong, now use your hands to root the pelvic bones and leg bones down (as if you were growing roots into the earth), and then rise back up out of the pelvis through your sacrum and your belly.
  • Uttanasana and lunges: work the legs in the same way as you did in tadasana. To grow the pose, extend organically from the pelvic bones down through the legs into the earth and then rise up through your spine.
  • Cobra pose, rajakapotasana prep pose: In these baby backbends, you’ll start to feel how the balance of Muscle and Organic Energy serves to extend the spine from a place of nourishment, rather than just bending the spine. Anchor your pelvis firmly into the earth, and then imagine that you could grow your spine out of that rooted place.
  • Parsvakonasana, virabhadrasana 2 (with goddess variation), trikonasana: All of the standing poses have the pelvis as the active focal point, so that’s the place you’ll draw into to nourish yourself, and that’s the place that you will grow from.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: In downward facing dog, because the heart center is below the pelvis, it is more weightbearing and the focal point shifts to the heart focal point. This is in line with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and the bottom of the sternum. Remember always to begin by expanding with your breath, so you let vayu carry the seeds of your consciousness. Then engage the muscles of your arms from your fingertips clawing the earth all the way up into the heart focal point. Keeping the muscles strong, extend from the heart back down into the heart, planting roots that allow the spine to rise out of the heart focal point and stretch fully through the legs.
  • Adho mukha vrksasana: In handstand (as in pinca mayurasana) the heart is the focal point, so that’s the place that you nourish and that’s the place that you expand from. Remember to root to rise. It’s good to practice this with your heels on the wall so you can feel the expansion upwards through the legs.
  • Bakasana: Most of the arm balances (except those when one foot is on the floor) have the heart as the focal point. The expansion that comes from planting yourself from the heart down into the earth will help you move toward straight arms and perhaps all the way up into handstand.
  • Rajakapotasana prep, dhanurasana (holding the ankles): I love doing these two poses in sequence, because they are essentially the same form, except one of them has the hands on the floor while the other has the hands holding the ankles. In both poses, grounding through the pelvis and legs will help the spine to elongate. If you have a practice buddy, have them press down through your heels so that your shins and knees anchor vertically into the earth. This will help you to feel more rooted, and from strong roots, the whole pose will grow.
  • Setubandha: Bridge pose is one of the few poses (including headstand and shoulderstand) where you’re primarily weight-bearing on the head and hence where the focal point is in the soft palate. To feel the palate focal point, try doing the pose holding the ends of a strap that is wrapped across the front of your ankles. When you go up into the pose, tug on the strap to draw all of the parts of your body into a nourishing embrace up toward the seed place of power in the palate. Then keeping the muscles engaged, extend down through the back of your skull (without flattening your neck) and back out through the torso and legs.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: Depending on where you are in your wheel practice, the focal point may be either in the pelvis or the heart. If you’re working with straight arms, these two points will probably be on the same plane, and so you default to the pelvis; if your elbows are bent, your heart will likely be lower (and hence more weight-bearing), and so it would be the active focal point. Knowing which of these seeds to nourish and cultivate makes all of the difference in your practice!
  • Sarvangasana: The palate focal point is active here, so draw fully in the palate from your hands and feet (as you do, maintain a natural curve in your neck). Extending from the palate down through the back of the skull into the earth will help promote a lift up through your spine and feet.
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The Ground Beneath You

I got a request to do a Nerd on the feet (for all of you Nerds out there, you should know that you can always make a request for a class focus), and it seemed like the perfect time for this.

So many of us are living in a climate of uncertainty, either personally or with those around us, and sometimes it can feel as if the ground were being pulled out from underneath us. The feet are our connection to the earth, and getting more in tune with that connection is a great way to feel more grounded.

I’ve been reading Anodea Judith’s book Wheels of Life in preparation for the Advanced Intensive with John Friend this year, and it has been a revelation to learn about the cakra system (the spinning “wheels” that receive and transmit energy) and map it onto the physical practice of Anusara Yoga. She emphasizes the importance of grounding as a practice tha enables us to live in the world.

Our sense of groundedness is related to the muladhara cakra, the root cakra located at the base of the spine that is our energetic center for security, safety, survival. When any of these things feel threatened — like when our home lives are disrupted, or a job is insecure — then we tend to get pulled up in this area and unplugged from the earth. That can manifest as tightness in the hips and psoas, but also it can manifest in a hardening at the upper cakras, for example in the heart. A practice of grounding through the pelvis, legs and feet allows us to live more easily in the heart even when things are challenging and uncertain around us.

PRINCIPLES:
  • Open to Grace: This first principle invites us to pay attention to our foundation on the earth, and release into the support that the earth gives. Parallel feet, anatomically, is defined as lining up the middle of the ankle through the 2nd toe mound straight ahead and parallel to each other. The feet, like any part of the body that is part of the foundation, have four corners that when evenly rooted create a stable foundation. (The square is the shape associated with the muladhara cakra because it is considered to be the most stable foundation.) They four corners of the feet are at the big toe mound (1st metatarsal), the inner heel, the pinky toe mound (5th metatarsal) and the outer heel. To feel these four points more clearly, gently lift your toes off the floor and then allow energy to flow downward through the foundation.
  • Muscle Energy: This flow of energy draws on the support of the earth to stabilize us in our core, creating a sense of security. All of the muscles embrace the bones, the limbs hug toward the vertical midline, and we draw energy from the peripheral parts (including from all four corners of the feet) toward the focal point (for today’s practice, it will mostly be the pelvis). In the feet, the power of the pinky toes spreading laterally and drawing back through the outer heel creates a strong action of the shins to the midline by firing the peroneal muscles of the outer shins. This action is critical for maintaining stability and earth energy as we open the pelvis.
  • Inner Spiral: The action of Inner Spiral, which turns the legs and pelvis in, back and wide, begins in the feet. Inner Spiral starts at the big toe mound and draws back through the inner heel, and that spiraling energy moves all the way up the legs to the waistline. Beginning Inner Spiral at this initiation point, rather than just at the inner thighs, will empower the action. Notice how the inner feet drawing back and wide creates a dynamic tension with the outer edges of the feet, which draw back and in with Muscle Energy. You’ll know the two energy flows are in balance when both the inner and outer feet draw back evenly. If the heels widen at all when you do Inner Spiral, the earth energy created by the feet is compromised, and Inner Spiral will lose its power and even be a destabilizing force (the knees knock in, the hamstrings over-widen). Focus on the outer heels drawing to the midline as the inner feet draw back, and notice how it creates both stability and space through the legs and pelvis and lower back.
  • Outer Spiral: While Inner Spiral initiates in the feet, Outer Spiral ends in the feet. It moves from the waistline back and creates a narrowing spiral all the way down the legs, ending at the outer edges of the feet, from the pinky toe mound through the outer heel, drawing back. In this way, Outer Spiral reconnects the legs toward the midline and re-establishes the power of the outer shins and outer feet stabilizing.
  • Organic Energy: This principle re-connects us into the earth in a powerful way, as opposed to the passive release into the earth of Opening to Grace. It always moves from the focal point downward first, and then from the focal point back to the sky. This creates a physical grounding that allows us grow and expand. When the pelvis is the focal point, the pelvic bones and the tailbone move down with the legs and feet, while the sacrum and the upper body rise. It moves evenly down through all four corners of the feet.
PRACTICE:
  • Tadasana: Feel the weight of your body into the earth. Notice if one leg is more energetically grounded into the earth or if the energy in one leg is more pulled up into the pelvis rather than rooting. A healthy alignment will have the energy from the pelvis through the legs and into the feet rooting evenly downward through both legs. Align the feet parallel, and lift your toes to feel all four corners of the feet, placing them evenly on the earth. Then engage the legs fully, spreading your little toes to stabilize toward the midline and drawing energy from the feet into the pelvis. From the inner feet drawing back, turn the inseams of the legs in, back and wide. Notice if your heels widen or push out when you do this, and if so, re-establish the Muscle Energy to the midline by spreading your pinky toes and drawing the outer heels in. Then bring your hands to your hips, anchor your tailbone down and push energy down from your pelvis through your legs and feet into the earth. As you get grounded in this way, you’ll be able to lift up out of your sacrum and through your spine.
  • Tadasana-Uttanasana sequence: Set up in tadasana as above, and then bow forward to uttanasana, keeping the pelvis and legs rooting into the earth through the feet. In uttanasna, you can see your feet more clearly, so recreate the alignment, especially focusing on getting the inner edges of the feet to sweep back into the resistance of the outer feet drawing back and in. Then anchor again through the pelvis and legs into the earth. As you come standing to tadasana, notice if your energy gets unplugged from the earth in one or both legs. Keep rooting down through both feet as you rise. Do this 2-3 times, and then just stand passively in tadasana and notice the energy flow through the legs. Do you feel more rooted? How does that affect your breath?
  • Lunge: Do a lunge with your fingertips on the floor, and as you turn to your breath, allow yourself to settle with gravity into the earth. Now engage the legs, spreading your pinky toes and drawing energy from both feet up into the core of the pelvis. Look at your back foot and notice if the heel is behind the ball of the foot. If so, that means that the back of the leg isn’t drawing in toward the core as much as the front of the leg. Balance the foot so all four corners are vertical, and then draw energy from all four points toward the pelvis. When you add the rooting of Organic Energy, extend out as much through the ball of the foot as you do through the heel.
  • Parsvakonasana (and other side plane standing poses): We’ll focus on the back leg for this one. Line up the back foot parallel to the back edge of the mat. This alignment will give you more power to the midline, more earth energy on the back leg. Lift your toes and feel all four corners of the foot evenly standing into the earth. Spread the pinky toes and then draw energy up the leg into the pelvis. Keeping that, add the action of Inner Spiral, initiating from the big toe mound drawing back through the inner heel. Notice if the inner heel widens when you do this, and if it does, stabilize the outer edge of the foot more powerfully. Once you have the Inner and Outer Spirals balanced, use your hand on your pelvic bone and anchor energy down through the pelvis and legs into the feet and earth, and from that grounding, extend through the spine.
  • Virabhadrasana 1 (and other front plane standing poses): In the front plane poses, the back foot will need to turn more forward in order to align the pelvis to the front, and that means the action of the back foot needs to be even more clearly lined up. Start with your hands on your front leg, and bow forward so you can see your back foot. Lift and spread the toes, drawing energy from the pink toe back through the outer heel. Keep that action as you engage Inner Spiral, pressing the big toe mound down and sweeping back through the inner heel. Bring that energy all the way up through the waistline without the back heel widening. Then add Outer Spiral and push energy down through the legs into the earth as you rise up.
  • Handstand and other inversions: In these poses, the feet aren’t part of the foundation, but they plug us in to the sky above. I’ve noticed a tendency to extend more up through the fronts of the legs and the balls of the feet rather than the heels, and this can make it hard to balance and create a sway-back. Play with standing through the feet in your inversions as if you were standing on the earth, with all 4 corners evenly drawing in and extending up, and see how that effects your balance.
  • Uttanasana on a blanket roll: One way that the grounding energy in the legs can get short-circuited is through the hyperextension of the knees (when the top of the shin moves back at a faster rate than the base of the shin or the tops of the thighs). Try uttanasana again with the balls of the feet up on a blanket roll, and start with your knees bent. The base of the shins will flow back and down because of the form of the pose, which will help you to create the tone in the back of the calf that prevents hyperextension (Shin Loop). Lift your toes and feel all four corners of the feet into the earth. Spread your pinky toes wide to hug the legs (and outer heels) to the midline, and then press more powerfully down through the big toe mound to engage the calf muscle and initiate Inner Spiral. Once you have the inner edges of the feet flowing back into the resistance of the outer feet, move your legs straight from the tops of the thigh bones, not the knees. Go all the way to straight legs (micro-bending the knee will also create a short-circuit in the rooting energy) and then anchor energy from the pelvis through the bones of the legs into the earth and pour your spine forward. After a few breaths, come off the blanket roll and feel uttanasana and then tadasana, noticing the energy flow in the legs. Is it more clearly rooted?
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana variation (and standing balances): In all of the standing balances, I find that the energy naturally tends to get unplugged (pulled up) in the effort to balance, and if I’m not mindful of actively rooting through the feet, my legs will actually feel more unplugged after the pose than before. This one is a good one to feel how to root down more. Balancing on one leg, draw your other leg in and hold the outer edge of the foot (arm inside the leg) with the sole of the foot pointing straight down and the knee slightly wide to the side. Feel the weight in your standing leg, and then lift your toes and engage the legs fully. As you spread the pinky toes, press into the big toe mounds and draw back so the inner thighs root back, and then stand down through all four corners of both feet as you rise up through the spine. The anchoring of the pelvic bones downward and into the earth through the standing leg creates a grounding energy in the leg that you’ll still feel even after you release the pose.
  • Thigh stretches: The feet have four corners, even when they’re not on the ground, and in the thigh stretches they should all be evenly drawing in and extending out. Take your favorite thigh stretch (in pigeon, lunge, standing…) and hold the foot below your toes on the metatarsals, so that you can line up the foot straight ahead. As you press your back knee into the floor and draw it forward, press down with your hand into your foot and spread your toes back (i.e. “lifting”) and wide. Then ground through the pelvis and legs as you rise through the low back and low belly.
  • Virasana and Supta Virasana: This is one of the most grounding poses in the yoga repertoire, as it roots the femurs and stimulates the downward-moving breath (apana vayu). The alignment of the feet in virasana is crucial for protecting the knees and making space for the lower back, allowing apana vayu to flow. The feet align to the shin bones, which are slightly angled to the side, so when you set up, stretch the feet back so that the middle of the ankles through the 2nd toe mounds are straight with the shins (not parallel to each other). Sit up on a prop if you can’t create this alignment on the floor, or if your pelvis is not resting heavily to the earth. (If the pelvis is uplifted or just skimming the earth, the energy will get pulled up.) Then spread the little toes wide and draw back through the outer heels (manually, if necessary); as you do, draw the outer heel and outer ankle in toward the midline until the heel is touching your outer hip. Keeping the outer feet drawing to the midline, now extend and draw back through the inner edge of the foot, widening the inner heel away from the pelvis. All four corners of the feet will be evenly pointing up when the feet are lined up. Take it back to supta virasana if you are able to hold the feet in this alignment. If you’re using a prop, move it so it is supporting your upper back rather than your pelvis when you go into the pose.
  • Seated baby cradle: Seated hip openers can help to create a very grounded sense in the pelvis, but if the feet are misaligned, the hips can actually get bound up. Look at the foot in baby cradle, and align the four corners of the feet so that they are evenly drawing in and extending out. Most commonly, in this position the outer edge of the foot will need to draw in more, and the inner edge of the foot will need to extend out more. Then spread the pinky toe and draw energy back through the outer heel. When you create this action, the foot will tip forward more, with the toes pointing forward. Then hold that steady and with your free hand hold the backs of the hamstrings and turn them in back and wide, and then anchor the pelvic bone under. Lastly, stretch through the entire foot into your arm.
  • Agni Stambasana: Set up the legs so that the shin bones are stacked and both feet are set with the ankle bones and knees aligned vertically. Flex through the feet, and create an even engagement and extension through all four corners. When the feet are aligned, you will not be able to see any part of the soles of your feet. Yes, that much. Then spread your pinky toes toward the floor, so the heels get light (you can even support under your shins and gently lift them up to help feel this action). Keeping the feet strong, now manually create Inner Spiral in both legs. Notice if the feet turn when you turn the thighs. If so, you’re losing some of the grounding energy. The feet have to stay clearly aligned while you add Inner Spiral. If the knees are released below the crest of the pelvis, bow forward. Hold the soles of your feet to give resistance for the Organic Extension out.
  • Baddha Konasana: With the soles of the feet together, start by pressing all four corners of the feet into each other, then spread the pinky toes toward the floor so that the ankle bones and heels get light. (A deep variation of baddha konasana that moves toward mulabandhasana is to start with both feet on a block.) Then create a deep Inner Spiral with the legs, keeping the pinky toes rooted into the earth. Once the inner thighs are flowing down, now open the feet at the big toe mounds to accommodate the strong Outer Spiral in the hips. Keep the pinky toes spreading into the floor and the inner heels pressing together to balance these energies. If you’re working toward mulabandhasana, keep all four corners of the feet pressing into each other, and as you spread the pinky toes down into the block, tip your feet forward so that the block tips toward vertical. Then send the inner thighs back and down toward the floor. Keep pulsing these actions until you have the feet vertical in mulabandhasana.

Debt and Happiness

Years ago, someone had commented to me that “independence isn’t the same thing as non-dependence,” and recently it settled in my heart. For as much as we may want to do things and take care of things ourselves, for as much as we prize our independence, if we don’t let others do for us sometimes, we end up shutting out the world.

We have to allow ourselves to be held sometimes, to be carried in their embrace. We have to allow ourselves to be indebted to others, in order to be happy.

In the yogic lore, this is a concept known as rna (it’s the “r” with a dot under it). It means debt or obligation, but it’s the idea that you don’t live in the absence of the gifts you’re given. When you’re given a gift, you’re left with a feeling of gratitude, and in a certain sense responsibility. Of course, none of us wants to accumulate debt (certainly not in this economic environment). But if we don’t allow ourselves to feel indebted to others by accepting the gifts they have to offer, we isolate ourselves from the world.

In Anusara Yoga, our first principle of Opening to Grace is the opening to receive the gifts that you’ve been given. In this principle, we open from the inside and then allow ourselves to be held. It’s the way in which we allow rna to be our experience. If we don’t allow for the rna, the rest of the principles and practice can end up disconnected, isolated, hardened.

Learning to release yourself into alignment is certainly a practice, and one that requires our openness to receive the gifts of those around us, to take on, as it were, that debt, and allow ourselves to be held in their embrace.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: This first principle really has two actions associated with it. First, there’s the opening to receive the gift that’s being offered. It may be the gift of your breath, a recognition of the gift of your own life, or something more specific, like the support you’ve received from someone. Physically, there’s an expansion of the inner/energetic body, as torso grows circumferentially and from the sides of the waist all the way up through the sides of the throat and the dome of the palate. The second component of Opening to Grace is a natural release into the embrace of gravity. The outer body (skin, muscles, bones) softens toward the earth. It’s a recognition of the debt and allowing yourself to be held, taking the form of your own gratitude.
  • Muscle Energy: There are two kinds of Muscle Energy: active, which uses the action of the muscles to create integration; and passive, which uses the release into gravity to create integration. So in a certain sense, the second component of Opening to Grace can create passive Muscle Energy. As we work through the principles in our practice, we have to learn to allow ourselves to be held in the passive embrace of gravity first, and then add active Muscle Energy to that release.
  • Organic Energy: Organic Energy also has both passive and active forms, and as with Muscle Energy, the passive form is when the release into gravity is what creates the extension.

PRACTICE

  • Hands and knees: Place yourself mindfully, and then turn to your breath. The inhales will naturally create an expansion on the inside. The exhales will naturally soften your outer form. When you release with gravity, notice how the heart center (between the bottom tips of the shoulder blades) melts down, and the arm bones integrate more deeply into the shoulder sockets. (If the upper back is stiff and doesn’t melt, you probably need to create more space, going back to the opening that allows others in.) This is the softening of the first principle, and it creates passive Muscle Energy. Now add active Muscle Energy, drawing from the fingertips to up through the arms into the pelvis. When you do active M.E. on the support of passive M.E., there’s a softness and a sweetness to the hugging of the muscles.
  • Downward-Facing Dog: The difference between active and passive M.E. here is significant. With the first principle, as you expand on the inside, the uper body will back out of the pose, with the upper arms rising toward the sky. Keep that expansion, and then soften the place of the heart, in line iwth the bottom tips of the shoulder blades. That’s all first principle, but it creates a deeper integration in the shoulder girdle. Once you find that place of being held in the upper back, now engage active Muscle Energy by pressing your fingertips into the floor and drawing the energy up the arms and into the heart. Notice the difference between active and passive integration. Notice, too, what the active integration would feel like if you didn’t first create that first softening. We need both. We need to let others in. Once you’re integrated, now extend Organically from the heart down through the arms, and out through the spine and legs.
  • Surya namaskar: As you move through these poses, pay attention to how much you’re holding and how much you’re allowing yourself to be held, particularly in caturanga and cobra pose. First create the opening, then the release, and then the active engagement, and see how that opens things up.
  • Virabhadrasana 2, trikonasana, parsvakonasana: Working in these side plane poses, bring your focus more to the lower body. When your upper inner body expands, the ouer form can release with gravity, especially in the pelvis and legs, integrating the thigh bones more deeply into the hip sockets. Find this opening and release with the breath first, and then engage more actively. Notice how when you release first, when you allow the rna to settle, the poses become softer, and more integrated. Once you find the release, then add your own effort through active Muscle and Organic Energies.
  • Vasistasana: When you come into the general form of the pose, make sure your stance is long enough to allow for a lengthening of the side bodies. Then direct your breath toward that expansion, especially lengthening the underside body from the waistline up through the armpit. When you open in this way, it creates the possibility of a passive release with gravity that slides the armbone more deeply into the shoulder socket, and the shoulder blade more toward the midline. Keeping that, now actively engage the muscles of the arms (and legs), and then extend Organically out from the pelvis through the legs and arms.
  • Handstand and Forearm Stand: In inversions, when you soften with gravity, the heart melts toward the floor, which in turn plugs the arm bones more deeply into the shoulder sockets. Once you’re upside down, try this, and feel how you can release into a greater alignment. Then again, add your effort to this through active Muscle Energy from the fingertips up to the heart center, and active Organic Energy, from the heart down through arms and back up through the legs.
  • Anjaneyasana, Pigeon Pose (with thigh stretches)
  • Dhanurasana, Makarasana, Rajakapotasana: With the first principle in all of these poses, the sides of the torso lengthen, and the heart melts with gravity. To me, moving toward rajakapotasana, the most advanced of these backbends, is all about riding the current of the breath in this way, allowing yourself to be held as you go deeper into the pose. It’s counter-intuitive, because you’d think that you’d have to push back to get your head to your feet. Instead, you have to soften the heart forward as part of Opening to Grace, creating a passive integration, while you darw the upper arms back through active Muscle Energy.
  • Baddha Konasana, Upavista Konasana: In both of these poses, as with most seated forward bends, the thigh bones tend to get pulled up, and the more we activate the muscles of the legs, the more this tendency can get aggravated, if we don’t first start with Opening to Grace. As you set up for these poses, start with your hands on fingertips behind your pelvis, and use your hands to lift your pelvis up off the floor. Create a huge expansion on the inside, lifting up through the sides of the torso, and then without letting the inner body collapse, allow the pelvis to release back down to the floor with gravity. This may take a few breaths. Once the pelvis is back on the floor, you’ll feel the hips more open and integrated. Then add your effort to grow the pose.

Ganesha and the Grantas

That pain in my right wrist came back again recently, and as always it led me to slow down, deepen my understanding, and learn something new in order to deal with it.

Obstacles have a way of doing that. Anytime we come up against an obstacle, in our practice or in our lives, it can be an invitation to a deeper engagement. That’s not to say that the obstacles we encounter are “blessings” (a wrist injury, or any hardship, is hard to see as a blessing), but they are always opportunities. When we’re stopped in our tracks by something, we have to pause, slow down, look more carefully, and find a way to engage that is going to advance our practice and our lives.

This is the gift of Ganapti (aka Ganesha, or the one with the head of an elephant). He’s often called the Remover of Obstacles, but I don’t see him that way. He’s an elephant. (Ever hear of the elephant in the room?) He’s that thing that’s in your way, that threatens to crowd everything else out. In my mind, it’s not like Ganesha swoops down and removes obstacles in your path; rather, his story (which is our story) reminds us that when we choose to engage that which lies in our path, we will see it not just as an obstacle but as an opportunity.

His story (at least one of them) goes like this:

One day, Ganesha asks his friend Vyasa, a great sage, to tell him the story of the Mahabharata. Vyasa agrees, but says that if he’s going to tell it Ganesha must write it down. Ganesha agrees, but then raises the challenge by saying that he’ll write it down only if Vyasa can keep him interested. And Vyasa again raises the challenge, agreeing but saying that Ganesha must understand every word. And so Ganesha breaks off his tusk and uses it to write out the great epic of the Mahabharata.

To slow down Ganesha’s process of comprehension, Vyasa throws in a host of grammatical tangles and plot twists and digressions. These are the grantas (“knots”), and if you’ve ever heard the Mahabharata told or attempted to read it, you know that it is indeed a knotted story. But each of these knots invites you to slow down, to look more carefully, to ask what more this might mean. They invite us to savor the story, and chewing on each teaching to reveal the sweetness that’s there (it’s not for nothing that Ganapati’s trunk always reaches for the sweets in his hand).

In dealing with my wrist pain, I had to slow down and chew on some teachings in order to get a new revelation. My practice led me to work on the spirals of the arms, which I have often forgotten to engage because they can be so confusing and besides, I told myself, they are really refinements that aren’t so important if you engage even Muscle and Organic Energy. Of course, I discovered that this was not the case. OK, understanding the spirals of the arms can seem as difficult as untangling the story of the Mahabharata, but they make all the difference.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: Have the courage to see that whatever obstacle presents itself to you in your path, it can be an opportunity for you to create a deeper engagement. That kind of openness translates into the body as an inner expansion, including the sides of the torso from the waistline all the way up through the sides of the throat. There’s also a natural softening and release when you realize you don’t have to remove the obstacle, you can only engage it.
  • Muscle Energy: When you engage muscle energy in the arms, drawing from the tips of the fingers to the focal point, the upper arm bones will plug back (to the back plane) in the shoulder sockets. Remember that Muscle and Organic Energy are primary energy flows in the body, and so this engagement will stay constant even as you add the refinements of the spirals of the arms.
  • Expanding Spiral: Here’s where things get a little knotted, and it will require a deeper engagement and understanding to work with the spirals of the arms. The expanding spiral of the arms and shoulders creates a widening of the upper back, and so it always comes first (always make space before you contract). Most of the time this is created by rotating the arms internally. You’ll feel this primarily by turning the forearms in, so that the palms face backward (the inner rotation of the upper arms would compromise the muscle energy of the arm bones into the shoulder socket). The exception to all of this is when the arms are in the overhead plane, where the expanding spiral is created by spinning the arms externally. Try it out just standing in tadasana, first with the arms by your sides, and then with the arms overhead, to feel the effects on the upper back of spiraling the arms. If this is confusing, don’t worry. Stay with me; it’s worth slowing down and taking the time to get this.
  • Contracting Spiral: The contracting spiral of the arms and shoulders narrows the upper back, hugging the shoulder blades (in particular the bottom tips of the shoulder blades) more toward the midline, and driving the head of the humerus more deeply into the shoulder socket. In most of the planes of the arms, the contracting spiral is created by rotating the arms outward (this is particularly activated in the upper arms, as the forearms must stabilize in their inner rotation to maintain the expanding spiral). Again, there’s an exception: when the arms are in the overhead plane, the forearms rotating in toward the midline will create the re-engagement through the upper back of a contracting spiral. All this is to say that, in all cases, the forearms rotate inward and the upper arms rotate outward. However, the order in which you engage these rotations depends on the plane of the arms. When the arms are overhead (like in downward-facing dog, handstand, forearm-stand, urdhva dhanurasana, etc.), the upper arms must spin out first in order to make space for the contracting spiral of the forearms spinning in. In all other planes (neutral, front, side, back), the forearms must turn in first in order to expand the upper back to make room for the contracting spiral of the upper arms spinning out. Are you with me?
  • Organic Energy: Thankfully, return this basic energy flow of extending out from your core. You’ve done the work, and transmuted what may have seemed like a knotted process into a deepening engagement of the shoulder girdle. Now just stretch from the active focal point out through the limbs.

PRACTICE:

  • Tadasana: Experiment with the spirals of the arms in their five planes (neutral, side, front, back, and overhead). Notice how when the forearms rotate in, the upper back expands in all planes except in the overhead plane, where this pattern is reversed. Similarly, you’ll feel how when the upper arms spin out, the upper back contracts in all planes except in the overhead plane. Remember that in all of this, the spirals of the arms are refinements that come within the larger context of Opening to Grace, and Muscle and Organic Energy, so as you play with them, keep the lift in the side bodies and the engagement of the humerus back into the shoulder socket.
  • Surya namaskar: Add the spirals of the arms as refinements in surya namaskar. Pay close attention in the transition from plank pose to caturanga: once you’ve engaged through the arms, bend your elbows slightly wide to the side as you rotate your forearms in. Your index knuckles will get heavier from this action. Keep them rooted into the floor as you externally rotate the upper arms and move into caturanga. In cobra pose, start with a fullness on the inside and a softness on the outside, then engage through the arms. As in caturanga, bend the elbows slightly out to the sides (without losing the engagement of the upper arms to the back plane!) to initiate the expanding spiral through the forearms, then keeping the index knuckles rooted, spin the upper arms out and stretch the pose.
  • Test the spirals of your arms: To see which arm tends to spin more externally and which tends to spin more internally, try this: Bring your arms out in front of you palms face up, as if carrying a tray. Turn your right palm down keeping your left palm up. Then turn both hands the other way, left palm down and right palm up. Do this several times and notice if there’s resistance in the muscles of the forearm when you move toward the external rotation (toward palm up). If so, that arm is more internally rotated. In an informal survey of Nerds, it was unanimously the case that the side where the forearm was more rotated inward (ie, resisted turning the palm face up) was the one that had more trouble in the wrist, elbow and shoulder.
  • Prasarita padottanasana with shoulder stretch: When the hands are clasped behind the back, it’s more natural to place the hand on top that corresponds to the forearm that is more internally rotated. Let me say that another way: the hand that’s on top will naturally spiral in more because of the form of the pose, and so it will be more natural to place that hand on top. Notice if that’s what you do when you clasp hands. Now bring the opposite hand on top. I’ve found that if you practice these clasps with the more externally rotated arm on top, it will help balance out the musculature through the arms and shoulders over time. Do the shoulder stretch this way. When you activate the spirals of the arms, to get the forearms to turn in more bend your elbows and widen them, pressing the index knuckles toward each other, then spin the upper arms out.
  • Virabhadrasana 2, Trikonasana, Vasistasana: Both of these poses have the arms in the side plane. In this plane, you’ll know the spirals of the arms are balanced when the eye of the elbow (the soft, inner part) is pointing in the same direction as the crown of your head (i.e. straight up in Vira 2). I find it hard to get that degree of spin without some resistance so try holding your forearm in with one hand while you externally rotate the upper arm.
  • Parsvakonasana: This is an overhead plane pose, so it’s a little trickier. One way to feel the spirals is to back out of the top arm so that the arm is pointing straight ahead (front plane) instead of overhead. Here, lengthen the side of the torso and draw in so that the upper arm moves back. Keeping that spiral the forearm in by pressing the index finger toward the floor, as if into some resistance; then rotate the upper arm out to get it more deeply integrated into the shoulder socket. With this action, now stretch the arm overhead. When the arm is in the overhead plane, you can re-activate the spirals, spinning the upper arm out first (so the palm faces back behind you) to widen the upper back, and then spinning the forearm in (so the palm faces the floor).
  • Adho mukha svanasana: Again, we have the arms in the overhead plane, so the outer spiral of the upper arm must come first. But remember, before you engage the spirals, first soften and open, and then engage the arms to the back plane. For the expanding spiral, lift the inner upper arms toward the sky, and then re-anchor through the index knuckles into the earth to feel the shoulders connect more deeply on the back. Keeping those two spirals going, extend the pose.
  • Adho mukha vrksasana: I found that working the spirals of the arms in handstand helped to keep my wrist clear. When you’re up, just like in dog pose take the inner upper arms back, and keeping that action strong, press again through the index knuckles.
  • Pinca mayurasana: This one is a great pose to play with the spirals, because you can change the foundation to emphasize one or the other. Try the pose with the palms face up (with your wrists pressing up into a block for extra stability). This emphasizes a strong external rotation of the upper arms. (If you have a practice buddy, have them press your thumb pads to the floor while you’re in the pose to really feel this). If you start with your arms in this position, the external rotation of the upper arms will give a widening in the upper back once you’re up (overhead plane). With that established, try flipping the palms back down or to hold the edges of the block to re-engage the shoulder girdle.
  • Parsvakonasana bound: The bound poses can certainly feel tangled, but if you use the spirals of the arms you can get more space for the bind. Try it first in a prep pose, with the top hand just to the small of your back (back of your hand pressing up against your back). Here, lift through the side of the torso and then draw the upper arm back in the shoulder socket. Keep that as you work with the spirals. To get more of the expanding spiral, rotate the forearm in so that the pinky presses up against your back. Notice how you can get more length and space this way. Now spin the upper arm out to open the shoulder girdle back. Once you feel it in the prep pose, try the full bind.
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana thigh stretch: If you do this pose with the back hand pressing down into the foot (fingertips forward and elbow to the sky), the spirals of the arms will help open the shoulder stretch even here. Press your index knuckle down into your foot, widening your elbow slightly to the side, then lift and open the upper arm out.
  • Dhanurasana: I wasn’t sure I’d ever like this pose again, as it would always pull on my wrist in an uncomfortable way. But it works! Hold your ankles with your feet flexed, and when you’re up, press your index knuckles up against your ankles (that’s expanding spiral) and then spin the upper arms out.
  • Purvottanasana: You can try this pose with the fingertips pointing forward, to the sides, or back. My favorite is forward, because it gives me the greatest access to the expanding spiral (turning the forearms in toward the midline), which in turn gives me greatest access to the contracting spiral (lifting the inner upper arms and spinning them out), which just feels great.
  • Setubandha: I figured out a new way to do this while playing with the spirals. Before going up, bend your elbows to the floor (fingertips point up, palms face in). Lift through your inner body and soften into the floor. Now root the upper arms down. Keeping that, turn the palms to face forward, as if pressing up against some resistance. The upper back will widen and you’ll have greater access to opening the upper arms in external rotation. Now go up, keeping the palms face forward.
  • Urdhva Dhanurasana: This was the pose that was always hardest with the wrist injury, and it was where I really healed my wrist. Start by pressing to the top of your head and pause there to engage all of the principles. Plug the arm bones back through muscle energy before working on the spirals. When on top of your head, the arms are in the front plane, so spin the forearms in first, bringing the elbows slightly wide to access this more. Then keeping heavy through the index knuckles, rotate the upper arms out and go up. Once in the pose, the spirals are reversed. So to re-engage, draw the inner upper arms back, then keeping them moving back, re-anchor through the index knuckles. Oh this feels good.
  • Sarvangasana: This pose requires a lot of power and opening in the upper back to get all of the vertebrae off the floor, and the spirals of the arms really help. Go to plow pose first, then clasp hands behind your back (place the hand on top that tends to outer spiral more, as we did in the earlier shoulder stretches). Bend your elbows into the floor, bringing your clasped hands up away from the floor. Once you have strong muscle energy, with the upper arms down, turn the forearms in (index knuckles toward each other) and the open the upper arms out. Notice how that helps to draw the bottom tips of the shoulder blades more to the midline. Curl your head back and then placing your hands on your back stretch up into the pose. If you find that any of your vertebrae are on the floor, go back to the clasped hand variation to re-engage the spirals and lift off.
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