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Category Archive for ‘Outer Spiral’ rss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRINCIPLES:

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

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

Outer Spiral: This

Release Practice

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

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

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

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

PRINCIPLES:

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

PRACTICE:

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

Folding yourself into more

I was recently inspired by the movie “Between the Folds”, a documentary on the art of paper-folding (aka origami). Paper-folding is a unique art form in that it there is nothing added, and nothing taken away in the process of making the art. Every single origami work begins with a square sheet of paper. And by merely folding, unfolding, enfolding, that single piece of paper can take infinite forms and expressions, from sad-eyed gorillas to a man playing a violin, to abstract sculpture and creatures as varied as the folder can imagine. One of the folders in the film even explored what you could do even with a single fold in a sheet of paper. Even with that limitation, the possibilities were endless.

It seemed to me a perfect parallel to the art of yoga, another art form in which nothing is added or taken away in the process, and yet we emerge transformed.

In the Tantric vision of yoga, each of us is inherently purnatva, which is to say complete, whole, perfect. There is nothing outside of ourselves that we need, and there is nothing inside of ourselves that we need to get rid of. What’s given is just what’s given, like a blank piece of paper. And yet, the possibilities of a creative life of yoga are infinite, simply by folding, unfolding and enfolding the self we’ve been given.

Of course, there’s no obligation to take the self we’re given and make something more out of it. There’s no obligation to step into the creative process of self. To take the analogy one step further, you could stay a square piece of paper your whole life, and maybe get a little creased and rumpled over time. Or you could step into the process of folding, engaging, and transforming your self into the form of your desire. This is to step into yoga.

I’ve loved playing with the image of folding in my practice, creasing my consciousness mindfully toward a vision of what I want to create. I’ve loved exploring how much I can create with a single fold, and when more complex folding techniques will give me a different result.

One way I’ve felt this is in working with the spirals of the arms: on the one hand, I think there’s so much you can create with just the powerful ONE-FOLD of Muscle Energy in the arms, which evenly roots the head of the armbone back into the shoulder socket. In fact, you can create every pose, an infinity of poses, with that single fold. And yet, the spirals of the arms, two extra folds, add a depth of expression that is rich and wondrous.

Let’s look at it.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: Start with the assumption that you are inherently whole, complete, perfect. There is nothing you need to get or get rid of. Everything you need for your own fulfillment is already present in who you are. This attitude is reflected in the physical body by a posture of fullness, of inner expansion, and of length through the sides of the torso.
  • Muscle Energy: The single-fold. I think of Muscle Energy as the initial creative act. In the upper body, it draws energy from the fingertips toward the active focal point, setting the head of the humerus directly back into the shoulder socket. When the shoulder is aligned in this way, it will have the greatest range of motion and the possibilities of what you could create in your body are infinite!
  • Expanding Spiral: The spirals of the arms add another layer of folding to the process. They are truly refinements, and although you can do a lot with the single fold of Muscle Energy, these spirals add nuance, depth, richness. The expanding spiral always comes first, and in most planes this is created by spiraling the arms inward (toward the midline), so that the forearms roll inward. This widens the upper back. When the arms are in the overhead plane, the arms spiraling outward (away from the midline), so that the inner upper arms flow back, creates this expansion.
  • Contracting Spiral: The contracting spiral creates a deepening engagement of the arm bones in the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades onto the back. In most planes, it is created by the upper arms spinning externally; when the arms are in the overhead plane, it is created by the forearms spinning internally. In all poses, the forearms spin internally and the upper arms spin externally; always create the expanding spiral first.
  • Organic Energy: This last principle is the final unfolding of your creation. Extend and stretch from the active focal point in all directions. At the end of the process, you find yourself transformed: the same self has become something MORE.

PRACTICE:

  • Prasarita padottanasana (with hands clasped for a shoulder stretch): In all of the poses where the hands are clasped behind the back, a balanced flow of Muscular Energy will have the wrist joints straight (not flexed or extended). To create this, begin with an expansion on the inside, and then bend your elbows. With the elbows bent, hug the heels of the hands toward each other until the wrists are straight, and then draw energy from the hands up through the arms into the core of the pelvis. When this single fold is true, the upper arm bones will set back and the shoulder blades will lift toward the pelvis. To add the spirals of the arms, turn the forearms inward (so the index knuckles move closer together), and then spin the upper arms outward into that resistance. Then stretch the arms fully straight and extend from the pelvis in all directions.
  • Surya namaskar: I practice surya namaskar with my elbows slightly wide in order to gain greater access to the alignment of the shoulders. Widening the elbows slightly helps make space in the side bodies, and as such will give room for the arm bones to set back. In addition, with the elbows slightly wide from the wrists, you can create more of an expanding spiral of the forearms, which means that you’ll have greater access to the contracting spiral (and hence deeper integration). With the elbows wide, roll the forearms in to get more weight on the index finger knuckle. Then keep that knuckle pressing down as you spin the upper arms out. Play with this in caturanga and bhujangasana. In adho mukha svanasana, note that it’s an overhead plane pose, so the upper arms must spin out first to create the expansion, and then keeping that re-anchor through the index knuckles by spinning the forearms in.
  • Virabhadrasana 2, trikonasana: In the side plane, you’ll know the spirals of the arms are balanced if the eye of the elbow is facing in the same direction as the crown of your head. This requires a huge external rotation in the upper arms, but it must be anchored into the strong resistance of the forearms spinning in.
  • Vasistasana: This is also a side plane pose, but as it’s weight-bearing in the arms, it’s a little more challenging to get the spirals aligned. When you come into the pose, first check to make sure the wrist crease is parallel to the front of the mat. I often find that in the transition to the side plane, the hand rotates inward. Then expand into the fullness of yourself, and draw the upper arm back. You can rock this pose with that single fold. To add depth, spin the forearm in to anchor more powerfully through the index knuckle, and then externally rotate the upper arm (without losing the anchoring through the index knuckle!) until the eye of the elbow is pointing straight toward the top of your mat. Yes that far.
  • Pinca mayurasana: In pinca mayurasana, a common tendency is for the upper arms to roll in too much, which can tweak the anterior deltoid. So a good practice is to work with a focus on the external rotation of the upper arms. In setting up for the pose, place your palms face up on either side of a block, so that the middle of the wrists are pressing up into the middle of the block. Starting with the palms face up emphasizes external rotation in the arms, and once you’re in the pose (arms overhead), this will create a widening of the upper back. If you have a friend to practice with, have them stand so that they can press your thumb pads toward the floor with their big toe mounds. If you’re practicing on your own, establish the external rotation in your arms, and then either stay with the palms face up or, (my favorite), flip the forearms in, so that you’re holding the edges of the blocks. When the forearms spin in, it reconnects the shoulder blades flat on the back in a yummy way.
  • Parsvakonasana: This is an overhead plane pose, but start with the arm extended at 90 degrees from your body (front plane), as it’s easier to establish good alignment here. Lengthen the sides of your waist, then anchor the armbone back. Again, this single fold is powerful, and infinite possibilites arise from just this action. To add the spirals, spin the palm to face down (forearm in) and then externally rotate the upper arm so that it locks back into the shoulder socket (the palm will face toward the front of your mat if you exaggerate). Then keeping the armbone plugged evenly back into the shoulder socket, take the arm overhead. Lastly, spin the palm face down one more time.
  • Parsvakonasana (bound form): The spirals of the arms are really important folds to do when binding, as they help make space for the bind (expanding spiral) as well as anchor the arm bone back in this more challenging position of the back plane (contracting spiral). Start with your top arm behind your back and the back of the palm in the small of your back. Inhale and expand on the inside into your fullness, then draw the upper arm back. To create an expanding spiral, spin the forearm in so that the pinky presses more into your back. That will help you create more length and space. Then keeping that, turn the whole upper arm out until the arm bone locks back into the shoulder socket. Then take the bind.
  • Padangusta arm variations (eka pada rajakaptosana, dhanurasana, natarajasana): Do some thigh stretches before these backbends, and then we’ll use the spirals to learn the padangusta grip for the overhead plane in backbends. In any of these poses, start by holding your foot from the outside (pinky toe side) with the palm face up. In this way, you’ll begin with more of an external rotation in the arm. Expand and lift on the inside, and draw the armbone straight back into the shoulder socket. Oftentimes, students feel stuck in the shoulder when trying to rotate the arm from here to overhead, and this is an indication that there’s not enough space for good integration. Creating an expanding spiral (forearm in) will help make more space, then reset the upper arm spinning externally, then swing the arm overhead.

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.

The Power of Intention

Just a few days ago, I was sitting on the beach with my beloved, and we were dreaming about our lives. (What better thing is there to do on a beach?) It brought us back to a memory of the last time we had sat on a beach dreaming together, and that was about three summers ago. We mapped out our lives then, each of us with our own vision of who we wanted to become and what we wanted to do. We wrote it all down diligently. We got home and set to work on our goals. And we probably forgot what we were working on within six months. The amazing thing is that, three years down the line, when we look back, we find that we have accomplished most of what we had set out to do.

To me, this is a reminder of how powerful a force intention can be in our lives. When we set our hearts to something, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to get it, but it definitely sets us along a trajectory. I like the Sanskrit word “vrata” for intention or commitment, because it implies taking a turn, pointing yourself in a certain direction. (Vrata is related to such words as vrtti and parivrtta.) The idea is that in making a commitment, you turn (a la Robert Frost) down a particular path, and the path you choose makes all the difference. Not that one is right or the other wrong, but that when you set out in a certain direction, it creates a trajectory. And that trajectory can hold you and carry you, even when you don’t remember how you turned onto this path in the first place.

I’ve been working on creating a stronger vrata in my own body through the action of the shins hugging to the midline. The shins build a pathway in the lower body that helps to line up the knees, hamstrings, and psoas muscles, as well as open space in the hips and the lower back.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: involves placing yourself and pointing yourself in a certain direction. To create the optimal starting point for the pathways you’ll build in the lower body, line up the feet so that they are straight ahead, from the middle of the ankles to to the 2nd toe mound.
  • Muscle Energy: Drawing toward the midline is one of the three aspects of Muscle Energy, and to me it most clearly reflects the act of drawing your path, of creating a trajectory for yourself, and thus holds a strong power of intention. In the lower body, a key point of focus for creating that path is hugging the outer shins to the midline. What’s interesting is that, hugging the midline itself involves a bit of a circuitous path. The muscles on the outer shins (called the peroneals) are activated by spreading the pinky toe to the side, and that creates an energetic flow from the outer pinky toe back toward the outer heel. The peroneal muscles themselves have a spiraling quality (all of our muscles are formed in spirals) and so when you engage them, the outer shin doesn’t just draw to the midline, it also flows back, toward the back plane of the body. Holding the energy of the outer shin to the midline and back can become a marker of how powerful you are holding the vrata of your intention.
  • Inner Spiral: The action of the shins creates a trajectory, and Inner Spiral, which takes the inner thighs in, back and wide, opens up the pathways of the lower body. In particular, the widening aspect of Inner Spiral works into the resistance of the outer shins to broaden the hamstrings, track the knees and psoas, and open space in the hips and lower back. What I’ve found is that we often forget about the vrata created in the outer shins when we start to access Inner Spiral. (Notice when you do Inner Spiral if the heels widen, or if your knees knock in…) The paradox, of course, is that you can’t actually do Inner Spiral without the strong, steady resistance of the shins hugging to the midline, because they create the trajectory for the flow of energy in Inner Spiral.
  • Outer Spiral: Once the lower body is lined up through these actions, Outer Spiral reinforces the commitment of the legs. As it flows from the waistline down to the outer edges of the feet, Outer Spiral takes the outer seams of the legs (including the outer shins) back and toward the midline. To me it’s a reminder that we have to keep renewing our intention, again and again, to make sure we’re still on the path we want to be on.
  • Organic Energy: From the focal point, extend energy down to the earth and back up through the extremities.

PRACTICE:

  • Modified Utkatasana: Try this pose with your hands on your knees, so you can focus on the alignment of your legs. Make sure the feet are lined up parallel, and that the knees are lined up straight ahead with your feet. Set yourself on the path you want to be on from the very start. Then lift and spread your toes (especially those pinky toes) to get the legs energized and the outer shins to fire. Hug the legs to the midline, and support this action with your hands on your outer upper shins, pressing in to the midline, without letting the knees knock in. Keep that commitment strong as you now turn the inner thighs in and back, moving wide into the strong resistance of the outer shins. You’ll probably feel some space open up in the lower back. Now anchor the tailbone down and stretch into the full pose.
  • Uttanasana: Here you can really feel how the shins spin energetically to the back plane of the body, rather than just to the midline. With parallel feet in uttanasana, bend both knees (it’s easier to track the legs with the knees bent) and lift and spread your toes. Spread the pinky toes to the sides and see how that fires up the outer shin muscles. As you draw the pinky toes wide, notice how the outer edge of your foot energetically draws from the pinky toe mound to the outer heel. This creates a steady action in the foot and lower leg. Now keep that (focus on the energy flow of the outer shins) as you turn the inner thighs back and press them wide into the resistance of the shins. Notice if the heels widening or the knees knocked in as you added the Inner Spiral. If so, reconnect in the actions of the outer foot and outer shin, and keep that vrata strong as you open through the inner thighs. Now stretch the legs all the way straight, without wavering from the pathways you created.
  • Runner’s Stretch/Parsvottanasana/Trikonasana: In all of these poses, you can use your front forearm pressing up against the outer shin to build a stronger trajectory in the lower leg. Once that is established, to open the hamstrings optimally on the front leg, turn the inner thigh in and back and then widen the back of the leg off to the side. Notice if your foot turned in as you did that. Keep the second toe mound vertical, the kneecap vertical, and the outer shin flowing to the floor even as you widen the underside of the leg. This will help track the hamstrings without over-stretching the attachment, for a good juicy opening.
  • Parsvakonasana: Start in the prep form of the pose, with your front forearm on the front thigh. Power up the legs, especially by spreading the pinky toes and drawing to the midline, and then spin the inner thighs in and back and wide. Look at the back leg first. What is the energy flow on the outer shin? Did it turn forward when you added inner spiral, or is it still moving back? Look at your front leg, and notice if the knee knocked in. And then re-set. Keep the energy flow on both shins strong, so the pathway is clear, as you add Inner Spiral, and the opening in the pelvis will be powerful.
  • Pigeon (and variations): All of the pigeon variations are great places to work on these actions. I like to even hold underneath the shin on the front leg with one hand, and keeping steady action in the toes, manually lift the shin (that’s to the midline) and spin the outer upper shin back (toward the pelvis). The inner thighs will naturally descend and open more easily. Try this in the narrow-angled pigeon, as well as variations with the front shin parallel to the front edge of the mat (including twisting to both sides)
  • Standing baby cradle: This pose is nice because you can hold the outer shin with your hands to ensure that the commitment is honored as you go into deeper hip openers. I like to hold under the shin with one hand, and set the inner upper thigh back with the other.
  • Eka pada galavasana/Dragonfly: Begin in a prep pose, like utkatasana with one ankle crossed over the opposite knee. Flex the foot and extend evenly through all four corners of the foot (especially the inner foot). Spread the pinky toes wide (in this case, that’s toward the floor) to create a steady action in the outer leg. Then manually turn the inner thigh in, back and wide, without letting your foot waver (that’s the point of origin for the pathways in your legs and hips, so keep the intention there strong!). Stay in the prep pose, or take it into the arm balance. For dragonfly, twist toward your top foot and wedge your upper arm into the arch, pressing your inner foot strongly into the arm. Then lean to the side to place both hands, stand down through your foot into your arm, and fly.
  • Virasana/Supta Virasana: You can often trace knee pain in virasana to its source in the feet, the point of origin for aligning the pathways of the legs. In virasana, the feet should line up with the shin bones (which, you’ll note, are not parallel but rather slightly flared to the sides), with all four corners of the feet pointing straight up. Sit on some padding if this alignment is hard to create. Spread your toes (manually, if they need a little extra boost), especially the pinky toes, and then draw energetically from the pinky toe mound up through the outer heels to fire up the outer shins. Use your hands to hold the shins to the midline, and create a firm commitment in the lower body. Then allow the inner thighs to settle and press them wide into the resistance of your hands. That will hep line up the knees and make space in the lower back. Add Outer Spiral and Organic Energy as you lay back for supta virasana.
  • Sucirandrasana (Eye of the Needle Pose)
  • Baddha Konasana
  • Upavista Konasana: This is the pose I go to if I ever have a tweaky hamstring, and I’ve had great success focusing on the action of the outer shins to help heal hamstring pain in this pose. Line up the feet vertical (through the second toe mounds) and fire up the legs. As you hug the legs toward each other, keep the energy flow of the outer shins moving down, toward the floor. Then bend your knees enough to reach your hands under the thighs and grab hold of the fibers of all three hamstrings. Watch that your toes don’t knock in. The outer shins should stay steady in their action to the midline and flowing down, and then use your hands to widen the fibers of the hamstrings into that resistance. Once you’ve got them tracked, anchor the thighs straight down the floor, sliding your hands out from underneath.
  • Building on these principles you can go into any number of hip openers and forward bends. Try: TMP, Baby Cradle, Bharadvajasana 2, and lotus variations!
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