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asana

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?

Yes, it’s January and the usual topics rear their heads. I’ve railed against marketing yoga for weight loss as much as a stretching routine. I’ve waxed mildly philosophical about contentment & acceptance as more transformative focuses than self-improvement. And yet… And yet.

Weight loss is no superficial matter. Being overweight increases infalmmatory processes in the body, as well as risks for all the major causes of death and disability: heart disease, vascular disease, stroke, diabetes.

Moreover, feeling overweight compromises how we are in the world, what we allow for ourselves and what we imagine. I’ve written here about quitting smoking, I’m writing a memoir about sober vinophilia, and I still write occasionally about my icey fascination with adreneline and extremes. So why not write about my experience with yoga and weight?

Weight has always been a sensitive topic for me. I started serious weightlifting when I was a young teenager & still feel safest, most at home in a spare, bright room full of metal and benches and bars and sweat. When things go really bad, I go to the gym. Because of having built a physique more muscular than the average woman, I’ve often heard extreme assessments of my appearance. Whether appreciative or derisive, it’s always felt intrusive, like someone commenting on your religion.

And of course through the years age, divorce, career change, night shift & the poignant stresses of living have taken their own tolls adding padding here & there, only to be shed as I process the emotions and memories they embody.

And this is where yoga comes in. My practice has given me the structure to observe the relationships between the shapes I embody and ideas, emotions, sensations and experiences I am processing. Yoga specifically addresses how we process and digest energy, specifically our food, emotions, rest and desire. Through breathing, circulation, motion and rest we can intentionally influence the efficiency with which we process our life experience. And this is the most important thing about weight, because even yogis die and in the end it’s always the heart that stops. Even yogis age, and in the end the face is never the same as it was when we were born. Even yogis struggle, and in the end stress shares the same physical processes regardless of where it is born.

From my own observation, weight stores emotion. Sometimes this is benevolent: we may not be ready or have the resources to process it we will soon possess. And the more thouroughly we process, the more time it can take, but the more we will understand and the freer we will be. When I was raped during my teacher training three years ago, I began a slow weight gain that was resistent to all my diet and exercise attempts. As that weight dissolved this last year, I was sometimes awash in emotions that were clearly out of context for my current existence. They were remnants washed out in the process of renewal. Cultivating witness consciousness (which is palpably and functionally different than disassociating), staying connected to breath and listening to my body for the poses and seats that would best support my activity were crucial in caring for and supporting this part of my process.

The weight that I carried wasn’t always comfortable, but it was often comforting. Loosing it wasn’t always comfortable, but my lighter body feels at home in my world. I lost thirty pounds during 2008, which is a steady & sustainable rate.  As important as the physical activity in yoga is the constructive rest and meditation. The eight limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) are as necessary to yoga practice as to an octupus.

Overall, daily practice and meditation are crucial. Even if it’s just a moment on the mat, the imprint that I carried into my day was sustaining. What I did on a given day was based on a general structure which I refined over the course of time, but tailored each day to my needs. My sleep patterns were stabilizing, my food habits were changing, my practice varied depending on my health, my cycle, the time I had set aside, emotions, work demands and classes I was prepping.

What I recommend for students who are designing a practice with weight stabilization in mind is first to be clear about what emotions and meanings you anticipate processing. Be open for change, and stay grounded in your overall process. For some drawing and journalling help with putting a particular day’s events in the larger context of their life. Remember that your practice is ultimately supporting you in digesting your experience and that no emotion, no day or night or wash of feeling is definitive of anything. It is information, it is color and you can be present for it and be the space and awareness of it.

I begin my own practice with breathing and pranayama. Kalabhati & Stomach Churning are particularly mind clearing and energy producing. They are also helpful for generating warmth on a cold morning, or on a camping trip. I follow these with 20-30 minutes of sun salutations beginning slowly and meditatively, feeling every centimeter of motion exquisitely with every cell of my body and working up to crisp motion in concert with breath.

Standing postures with lots of twists and revolved poses felt integrative, strong and cleansing, and by Fall I was closing with Sarvangasana, or shoulderstand, for 5 minutes each day, followed by Halasana, or Plow, a final twist & squeeze. After a luscious Savasana I like to practice Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, before silent meditation, focusing on my breath. Some chanting brings me nicely into the rest of my day.

That’s what I’ve devised. I’ve recently read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga with great pleasure and he has a routine at the end which has many of the same elements. I wouldn’t recommend diving in without a teacher, because no amount of reading will enable you to transition between postures or guage your readiness like a teacher. But if you have experience or a teacher to guide you, either through private or group lessons, it’s a well rounded program, and regardless, the thoughtful first chapters are valuable for the clarity & simplicity of his explanation.

I continue to observe the changes of my body and mind through my practice and while I’m now at the weight I was before, my body continues to grow slimmer and more muscular, though of a different  density than my 145# benching days. (Yeah, I actually used to loose boyfriends because I could bench more.)  I regard this as evolution, information, experience and contribution to the wisdom I seek. I invite you to share your story, plan, experience or struggle through comments or email. Remember, it’s all Gunas acting on Gunas (Bhagavad Gita) or loosely translated, “It ain’t nothin’ but a thing. Another thing.”

Going to Yoga workshops is one of my dearest pleasures. I use them as rewards, treats, carrots and sometimes just fun. That’s why I’m excited to announce the first of this year’s YogaEveryDay workshops, my chance to share a concentrated yoga experience with you!

Intro to Yoga on Saturday 31 January will focus on basics. Like a parent who secretly favors one child, my favorite classes to teach are the “Level 1”, “Basic” or “Beginner.” This Workshop will be an afternoon to learn or return to basics of alignment, breath, strength & opennes. Affordable, Supportive & Fun – Join Now!

Partner Yoga on Saturday 21 February: we’ll provide a safe, open, light environment for practicing yoga poses in unique, supportive combinations that will open and enlighten your heart and connections. Join Now!

 I’m a do-it-yourself gal, and a create it yourself kinda gal, at that. For me, that’s never meant buying the how-to guide or going to endless classes. Maybe that’s why I started a home yoga practice as early as I did and why I still believe that what you do in your own home is the foundation for yoga seeping into your life. I’ll always take primary, historical sources over popular or modern reprises and personal experience is my highest authority. In our ever more standardized world, experience that grows authentically from quiet inwardness, genuine desire and spontaneous connection is an endangered species. So I’m an unlikely and wholly enthusiastic endorser of Helen Garabedian’s second book on yoga for the underage and underfoot crowd.

Garabedian’s thorough education, passion and deep experience shine through her writing and organization of this really useful manual on yoga for you and your toddler. She has credentials as an Infant and Early Childhood Developmental Movement Specialist – who knew!? – and clearly has a  passion for investigating, facilitating and revelling in the mind-body connection with children. She’s a certified yoga instructor, Reiki Master, Infant Massage Instructor, Pregnancy Yoga Teacher and Brain Gym graduate, all certified.

My earliest yoga memory is mimicking my mother while she does yoga with the television. Mom is in what I’d now call “Down Dog” and I crawl through and then put my hands and feet on the floor and wiggle around until a bug catches my interest. I figured that when I had children they’d learn yoga by immersion. What Garabedian has taught me is that it really makes sense to talk to toddlers in their terms and to tailor asana for their bodies and experience.

She grounds this specialized treatment of mainly asana in a practical understanding of yogic principles and a research based treatment of the benefits of yoga for toddlers. After all, what’s the best way to enlightenment? Never loose it. If children come to us consumed by presence and moment-to-moment immersion in awareness, maybe one of our greatest gifts is to learn to work with and nurture this into reflexive awareness, rather than the time honored method of suppressing it so that as adolescents they seem to rediscover it for the first time in history.

The book is organized so that you can easily tailor your practice time to your goals. Along the way, you’ll inevitably learn about movement development  in toddlers and may be enticed to learn about learning and bonding. This one was a revelation to me, even for teaching grown ups: “I am able to understand and respond to a sentence like, “Touch your toes.” But it may be hard for me to respond to a sentence like, “Reach down and touch your toes.” It seems so simple to make it simple … but it takes thought, planning and consideration. Garabedian helps with that.

She renames some poses and others are taken from natural movement. Renaming Trikonasana (Triangle) “Falling Star” turned me off at first, but it makes sense for the same reason. One of the benefits of renaming is to adjust adult expectations. Not only does Falling Star paint a picture that Triangle will not for the toddler, but it helps the grownups leave behind our expectations of form and perfection. And that’s pretty yogic right there.

Garabedian specifically points out how the various poses and movements benefit you and your toddler, gives clear, concise instruction for showing your toddler and easy suggestions for integrating affection and presence. What better way to lead ourselves into meditative presence and practice than to share moments of awareness and embodiment with those we love.