I was born bow-legged and pigeon-toed. So bowed, in fact, that without years of orthopedic attention including casts and braces nearly from birth – I creatively learned to walk in hip-to-toe casts – I wouldn’t have walked at all, much less had the opportunity to punish my non-conforming hips with long-distance barefoot running and heavy weightlifting in my teens and early twenties. A determined little will, I learned how to bounce my cast-heavy self on the mattress of my toddler crib enough to vault my little toddler body over the raised railing meant to keep me safely on soft surface.

Once graduated from the casts and nightly braces, you could no more tell that my legs were sculpted masterpieces than you could determine how many prunings a fully grown elm had undergone. And that determined will only grew with my body, so no one could tell me differently when I was a teenage runner with dreams of marathons and a need to feel my own brute strength. Some weeks during my mid-teens I would log 150 miles, and my favored gear was none. That’s right, barefoot before barefoot was cool. Except that barefoot isn’t really ever cool for teenage girl – our footstrike pattern is narrower than our hip range, creating rotational stress forces on the skeleton – especially if she runs part-time on asphalt and concrete. At one point I could squat 450. Pounds. Not bad for a little suburban girl.

Except that the running and pressing were really metaphors I was living out, while I took over where the orthopedists wisely left off, attempting to pound my body into shape. What shape, you may ask, because obviously I was cardiovascularly fit? I’m not sure I ever knew, except that it wasn’t good enough yet, and I really loved – lived for – the euphoria. Adrenaline junkie, from my first mattress vault.

As a 41 year old yoga teacher, this history speaks to me through my joints. I’m lucky to have any cartilage left in my injured right hip, and the missing bits of connective tissue make alignment a moment-to-moment challenge. The muscular body I’d sculpted allowed me to power into Ashtanga yoga in my 30’s, continuing my pattern of subjugation of sense and sensibility, believing that working through the pain would alleviate it in the long run. It does not. Let me repeat that, because I had some apparently accomplished, seasoned, respected teachers who continue to instruct that it will. Pushing pain does not alleviate it.

The Ashtanga yoga would, however, give me the structure to begin to hunger for more quiet and listening, which eventually took me away from the programatic, forceful movements I was using. And this hunger (I’ve always loved food – both physical and spiritual) took me to the edge of deep waters. I’ve learned from Iyengar, Tantra, Anusara, Kundalini, Structural, Yin and other styles until I became able to let the yoga do me.

So today I don’t look like the American vision of a yoga teacher. I’m more well padded, happier than earlier versions of myself, and given to limp when not fully established in the core of my awareness, a tendency I’ll work with until I decide to get the hip re-surfacing procedure that’s revolutionizing hip replacement surgery. I sit differently than other meditators because of the way my right femur sits deeply in it’s joint. My relationship to alignment, perception of my core and core strength has been shaped and sharpened by the vicissitudes of my sculpted legs and hips.

I also work with my students differently than most other teachers, because I’ve visited so many points on the curve of perfect health and come so directly face-to-face with pain, transience and breakdown as well as strength, power and ability.

Yoga has been patient with me, and I continue to imbibe its lesson of perseverance, observation and responsiveness. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about yoga: it will meet you where you are and crack your heart open more gently, more surely than any lover. All yoga wants is your bare heart, naked and strong to engage the world.

Aligned Warrior I

strength in the engagement of the legs translates into core strength

Alignment sounds so very boring and technical, and yoga is almost always an expression of joy, a time to relax and let go into the present, and to be, sink into our bodies and discover our present moments.

So why bother talking very much about alignment, except in teacher training? I mean, obviously teachers should know something about alignment, but do we really need or want to interrupt the flow of class with it?

Yes! As a teacher, I attach great importance to speaking poetically about alignment and bringing out the metaphor of aligning with our inner truths, even exploring the duality that the concept implies. Alignment is absolutely the core teaching of, in and about yoga pose, because without attention to alignment of joints, planes and limbs, the poses only reinforce the very habits – samskara – we are in yoga class to unravel, unknot and unlive. In the absence of attention to alignment, we are not only unsafe mechanically, but we are grinding the grooves of our habitual responses ever deeper.

Let’s look at a simple pose, like Virabhadrasana, Warrior I. One foot forward, one back, hips square to small edge of mat, arms up. Simple, right? Simple, but not easy.

Misaligned Warrior I

back leg is falling asleep and the hips have no energy!

The back leg reaching back has a tendency to fall, bend at the knee and generally “hang out”. When we energize and straighten it by engaging the muscles 360 degrees to center, what happens in the pelvis? The hamstrings and the hip flexors – iliopsoas – are opposing one another. By engaging that back leg, we tug the hip flexors, which sounds great, right – stretch is good. But what are we likely stretching?

More likely, we’re stretching the abs, not keeping the core engaged, compressing the low back and simply tugging the front of the pelvis down a bit. Why, How? The back femer, reaching back, brings with it the attachment of the hip flexor, which stretches as much as it can. Cool. But it’s a deep and not easily sensed muscle. What happens when it gets to it’s maximum? it tugs on the interior of the pelvis, the next place where muscle meets bone. Hmmm. There’s another section that crosses to the spine, and this is in turn stretched by the pelvis careening forward, but only to its limit. Beyond that, the belly pooches and the tailbone comes up. The low back in between gets crunched like a sandwich in a brown bag at the bottom of your backpack. Ouch.

And this is probably a familiar progression if you do any office work or driving at all, because the hip flexor is in it’s relatively contracted position for long periods of time. This is familiar, this is habit. This is what we’re here to bring attention to. And alignment allows us to do so.

What if you felt the alignment of your ribcage and pelvis in Mountain – the pose that looks suspicously like just standing there only with great attention – with a neutral pelvis by placing your thumbs at the bottom of your ribcage and your fingertips on the top of your hip bones. Now, step back into Virabhadrasana I, back foot turned at about 45 degrees, keeping the same alignment between hips and ribcage. Quite a revelation, huh? Notice where you feel engagement to preserve your alignment. Notice where you are tempted to fly out of alignment for the “look” of the pose.

Alignment is everything because awareness is everything. Whether you understand it from technical anatomical terms or from putting your hands on your ribs and hips to feel when they move, the awareness is what yoga is all about. Without it, you’re a Rhinestone Warrior.

Balance comes from understanding the opposing forces in our lives, and how we can integrate them in an expression of our deepest truth and values. Whether those forces are internal or external, chosen or non-negotiable, understanding their natures and contours as well as our deepest core allows us to most efficiently act from integrity at any given time.

Rather than trying to make our roles, bodies or activity fit a pre-determined mold, balance requires us to recognize what we have, choose and examine our foundation, feel our deepest center, integrate our periphery and unify what might at first seem like opposing demands. When we try to balance without practice or without consciousness, it can make us feel scattered and a bit nuts.

Sometimes this is because we’re not acknowledging the way things happen to be, or because we lack support, vision or strength of our core. But when you practice a little bit each day, you lay a foundation of consciousness, strength, awareness and support from which you can act to transform your world through concrete action.

The four principles of balance are Vision, Grounding, Support & Centering. In yoga pose, we apply these principles intuitively.

From this  

yogi needs help!

Ommmmm!

To this….  

Balanced and free

Balanced and free in Vrkasana

Vision starts literally where your eyes fall – your drshti, focus, chosen part of the world to take into your senses. You must choose one that is steady, not too large or small and cultivate the ability to stay with it. You must know to reality of your chosen focus, or when it moves and reveals itself to be an ant you’ll be surprised and loose your balance! Paradoxically, perhaps, this means experimentation with an open heart and mind – without resistance or anticipation – and commitment to revising and refining your vision over time.

Grounding happens where the rubber meets the road, or the skin meets the mat. In standing poses this means connecting through all four corners of your feet and feeling your toes relaxed and alive. This is the root or basis of the pose, and integrity here translates into integrity throughout your body. Off the mat, this can mean being transparent and realistic about our motivation and investment. Where does the rubber hit the road? How does a given activity, relationship or necessity really function in the context of your entire life? Where are your “feet” for this endeavor?

Support comes from the expression of the pose through the entire body. In Warrior I, we often let the back leg become a little lax, after all we can’t see it and we’re so focused on the arms in the air and not falling over! Well not falling over is specifically influenced by how alive that back leg is! Even effort throughout all the limbs with the muscles gently huggging the bones and drawing into the core, even while we reach strongly out from the heart supports the overall expression of the pose, or any endeavor.

Centering happens when we muscularly, energetically, emotionally, mentally hew to midline. Just as we draw our muscles to midline at the end of a meditative outbreath, centering requires that we draw our core support muscles into the center of the body. Core strength starts in the inner thighs, is felt in the pelvic floor and translates into the 3 major abdominal muscle groups usually associated with core strength, and even requires the finer muscles supporting the spine, connecting the spine and torso, all of which support the smooth and effective function of the diaphragm in respiration.

Whether in yoga pose or traffic, find equanimity by bringin your awareness to your vision, ground, support & center. You’ll breathe more easily, think more clearly, focus more securely and choose with integrity you find it easy to follow through. Breathe, Balance, Be!

In Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy, he addresses the Bandhas in the introductory remarks about breathing.

 “Along with the rispiratory diaphragm, breathing involves the coordinated action of the pelvic and vocal diaphragms.” p.13

 Three diaphragms! Even in cadaver lab this was never apparent to me, but once spotlighted the simplicity is inescapable! To make it even better – more elegant, explanatory, integrated & just plain cool! – the central tendon of the respiratory diaphragm is part of the pelvic floor. Thus the connection between mulabandha, or pelvic floor toning, and breathing, as well as stabilization of the spine and torso.

I’m polishing up the handouts for my Heart Opening Workshop tomorrow, one in which we begin with the premise that all the many levels on which people seek heart opening begin with deep anatomy of the neck, shoulders and core. To be clear, I include in “core” all muscles and connective tissue in a diamond shaped area from the inner knee, out to the pelvic edges, up to the shoulders with the top at the hyoid bone.

One of the introductory exercises we’ll engage is Simhasana, or Lion’s breath and I was intrigued to find in Light on Yoga that Iyengar mentions the tonifying action on all three bandhas. This makes sense now that I more fully understand the connection between the diaphragm & pelvic floor. Furthermore, Kaminoff observes of malasana that pressing the outside of the elbows into the inside of the knees aids the action of drawing the rectus abdominus back & up, thus the diaphragm and that all of the bandhas are highlighted this way.

What poses have been the most enlightening of your bandhas?

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