I just came back from 10 days in Vancouver Island, surrounded by primary rain forests shrouded in mists, and getting to know the waters and the whales. While there (in Tofino), I went on several tours with the guides from Remote Passages, all of whom shared a deep commitment to the health of this unique ecosystem and a deep understanding of the synergistic relationships between all the different parts of the ecosystem. One guide explained how the cedars, some of which are upwards of 2000 years old, are able to grow so tall and live so long because of nitrates that they receive from salmon who swim upriver in this season and die on the banks, in the jaws of predators, so that their nitrates filter back into the earth and the trees’ roots.
After a couple of days, I was more attuned to these connections and to how my own presence touched and intersected everything around me. By the end of the trip, even though I had been traveling alone, I felt embraced and held in a web of relationships, and this translated into a sense of groundedness and ease.
Spending time close to nature will do this: if you just pay the slightest attention, you can’t help but be reminded that you are always in relationship with everything around you, and you are always connected to something much greater than your self. True isolation, as the Tantrikas claim, is not really possible, even though we certainly can feel isolated or alienated at times. When that happens, we just need to pause and reaffirm our greater connections.
This got me thinking about the Nerd, and the way in which we practice in the Nerd. The whole point of this class (and blog) is to draw a narrow focus to one particular aspect of our practice – a principle, a muscle, a class of poses – and look at it from every angle possible, bringing it more into the light and infusing it with power. I obviously believe there is extraordinary value to this kind of focus; I love practicing this way. But if the action or muscle we’re focusing on ends up isolated from the greater context of the practice, our practice ends up hardening, becoming rigid.
So we always have to see how the principles we’re focusing on relate to the greater context. Anusara’s principles are designed as a systematic, sequential and progressive unfolding of actions, and all of them work in relationship to all of the rest of them. If we try to do them in isolation, they are not really effective; it would be like removing the salmon from the cedars’ life cycle – the whole process breaks down.
With that in mind, over the next several weeks, I’m going to work through the energy loops of the body, starting with the foundation so that we can build the entire cycle from the ground up and feel the relationships among all of the principles.
It starts, always, with Opening to Grace, opening to the greater context of our lives, and feeling held in that web of relationships that is always embracing us.
- Open to Grace: Our first principle invites us to set the foundation of the pose mindfully, with respect for the way we touch the earth because this represents how we place ourselves in the context of something bigger than ourselves. On many signs in nature preserves, there’s the instruction to “leave only footprints”; may we tread with respect and love on the earth. When you set the foundation of the feet, line them up parallel from the middle of the ankles through the second toe mounds. All four corners of the feet (big toe mound, inner heel, baby toe mound and outer heel) evenly release into the earth. This passive release with gravity that’s part of Opening to Grace is the feeling of letting yourself be held by something greater than yourself. This is the context for everything else.
- Muscle Energy connects all of the parts of our being, so that we feel ourselves as an ecosystem, where every piece has a role to play. It draws the parts of our being into relationship by hugging concentrically from skin to muscle to bone, hugging the limbs to the midline, and engaging from the peripheral parts to the core.
- Ankle Loop: The energy loops are refinements of the larger context of the dynamic pulse of Muscle and Organic Energy. Ankle Loop is the foundational loop (when the feet are on the floor, at least), providing a kind of root system for the body. If the Ankle Loop isn’t activated, none of the other energy loops will be effective, because they all must work in relationship to each other. This loop begins at the base of the shin bones, just above the ankle bones, and draws back and down, so the back of the heel roots into the earth. Then it travels up through the center of the arches and reconnects at the base of the shin.
- Shin Loop: This builds on the foundation of the Ankle Loop. Shin loop also starts at the base of the shin, where it has a juncture with the Ankle Loop, and then flows back and up the back of the shin, so the calf muscles hug to the bones and push the top of the shin forward. The front side of Shin Loop flows down and reconnects to the juncture point with Ankle Loop. To activate the Shin Loop, you have to activate the calf muscles, and the easiest access point for this is to press into the mound of the big toe. When we do this, however, the heel will tend to get light (as if you were coming up on high heels) unless we remember the connection to the Ankle Loop (which roots the back of the heel down). We must hold the two in relationship. If the heels get light, it will tend to make the hip flexors bind, as the femur pulls up into the hip socket; also, the healing properties of these loops for hamstring attachment tears is lost if the Ankle Loop is lost.
- Organic Energy: This last principle takes the sense of wholeness of our own being and connects it back to the world around us, so we don’t end up feeling isolated in our practice. It extends from the focal point (mostly the pelvis here) down through the bones (of the legs) into the earth, and then extends from the focal point back up through the rest of the body (torso, head and arms).
- Tadasana: Line up the feet parallel, and then just feel the weight of the feet into the earth. Notice if one leg feels more plugged in and connected. The leg that’s uprooted will be the side where the hip is tighter. Now bend both knees and release evenly with gravity through all four corners of both feet. Lift your toes and engage the legs fully, hugging all of the muscles evenly to the bones, holding to the midline, and engaging from the feet up into the pelvis. As you draw up from the feet, stretch the legs straight, keeping the muscles toned and the weight balanced on your feet. Keeping the legs strong, now anchor your pelvis down with your hands, so you re-connect to the earth through the legs and feet, and then extend up through your lower belly and spine.
- Uttanasana: Notice how your weight falls into the feet when you bow forward. Look at the relationship between the top of your thigh (greater trochanter), the middle of the knee, and the ankle bones: when the line connecting these three points is vertical, that’s a straight and aligned leg. Oftentimes, you’ll find that the knee and the hip (or just the knee) sit back behind the ankle. To build healthier relationships in the legs, we start at the beginning. Bend the knees to back out of the pose (Open to Grace) and get all four corners of the feet to evenly root down. Now engage the legs fully (Muscle Energy), lifting and spreading your toes. Keeping the knees bent and the legs active, drag the base of the shin back to initiate the lower loops. As the base of the shins go back, anchor your heels down and simultaneously press through the mounds of the big toes to activate the calf muscles. Then, with both the Ankle and Shin Loop established, straighten your legs fully, from the roots of the thigh bones, and extend Organic Energy from the pelvis down into the earth and long through your spine.
- Adho mukha svanasana: In downward-facing dog, getting the heels to the floor is often seen as an “ideal” form, but the extension through the heels must be in balanced relationship to the rest of the body. If the heels stretch down without a synergistic tone in the calf muscles, you’ll be pushing the legs into hyperextension, which creates a short-circuit in the ecosystem of your body (the hip flexors respond by tightening, the hamstring attachments can get overstretched, and the lower back will tend to round). Try dog pose just like we did in uttanasana, starting with the knees bent and legs strong; drag the base of the shins back without straightening your knees and then root down through the heels as you press strongly into the mounds of the big toes. The heels should go down only as much as the calf muscles draw up.
- Adho mukha svanasana variation: Try this one leg at a time, using your other foot hooked around the Achilles tendon (between the big toe and second toe) to help engage the Ankle Loop while you draw the calf muscles up strongly. Then stretch the leg fully straight.
- Parsvottanasana: Often I’ve practiced this pose for Ankle and Shin Loops with a blanket under the ball of the foot, but in Tofino I didn’t have the right prop for this, so I just did it with the foot flat on the floor. I was amazed to find that I actually got more power through the loops, probably because of the full connection to the floor. Get the foundation set, then engage the legs fully. Keeping all of the muscles hugging to the bones, on the front leg pull the base of the shin back. (Remember the Ankle Loop starts at the base of the shin, so it’s not really the heel that draws back.) As you do, ground down through the back of the heel and press into the mound of the big toe simultaneously to fire up the calves. Then stretch the leg fully straight and extend Organic Energy down and out.
- Trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: Because the front foot is pointed, trikonasnana, will feel much like parsvottanasana, in terms of the importance of the lower body loops. Work it like we did above. In ardha chandrasana, the key is to use the lower loops to avoid locking the knee (which would again short-circuit the balance of relationships in the legs).
- Utthita hasta padangustasana: Try the prep pose, where you bring one leg in and hold the front of the shin (knee bent, rather than straight leg) or, even better, holding the outer edge of the foot (knee bent, standing down through the foot into your hand). Activate both feet, tone all of the muscles, and then engage the lower loops. The lower leg will act like ardha chandrasana and needs the lower loops to prevent hyper-extension. The top leg will feel totally different. Try dragging the base of the shin back into the resistance of your hand, and notice how it opens space in your hip.
- Deep, wide lunge: Step one foot forward and wide, to the outside of your hands (you can turn the foot out at an angle to clear the hip joint a little more). Settle into your foundation, so you feel the support of the earth. Then engage the legs. Feel how on the front leg side, when you activate the Ankle Loop by drawing the base of the shin back, it connects and opens deep in the pelvis.
- Surya namaskar: Play with this in plank pose, caturanga, and especially cobra pose.
- Thigh stretches: In any of the thigh stretches, you’ll get a deeper and more connected stretch if you work the lower loops. (I know, it may seem counter-intuitive, but so does the idea that the salmon make the trees grow bigger and live longer…) Always hold the top of your foot (not the toes) when you do a thigh stretch. Think about it: if you’re pushing on your toes, you’re creating reverse Ankle Loop, which will have repercussions all the way up into the hip. So press down into your foot as you flex your toes back, creating ankle loop in much the same way you did with a pointed foot in trikonasana and notice how that changes the whole ecosystem of the pose.
- Pigeon pose, variation with the front shin parallel: Flex the front foot, so you’ll have more access to feel the Ankle Loop.
- Baby cradle: This is a great pose to feel the relationship between the Ankle Loop and the opening of the hips and lower back. Because the foot’s in the air, you’ll have to provide your own resistance for the Ankle Loop, so that the base of the shin can pull down energetically without moving in space.
- Agni stambasana
- Upavista konasana: In all of the seated forward bends, watch the feet and pay close attention to how your foundation (the whole back of the leg) engages the earth. In the full pose here, the Achilles tendons will be on the floor, as will the heels (and the entire inseam of the thighs). Start with a passive release into the foundation, then tone the legs fully, so all sides of the legs hug to the bones and draw up toward the core in the pelvis. Then, flexing the feet, press the base of the shins to the floor as the heels and mounds of the big toes extend long.
- Baddha konasana
- Happy baby