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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.

“The light which shines above this heaven, above all the worlds, above everything, in the highest worlds not excelled by any other worlds, that’s the same light  which is in you.” ~Chhandogya Upanishad

What if all the thinking, all the words, ideas aren’t our minds? What if they’re the covering over our minds? Don’t get me wrong – they’re great tools. But what’s overseeing the job site? They’re not the tools you’ll need if you’re looking for your true self or for a steady place to stand.

Science tells us our minds are decentralized in the body. Yoga helps us settle into our heart, where wisdom and intelligence reside. Of course when we talk about heart in yoga, we’re not just talking about the juicy pumping muscle to the left of center in our ribcages. There are a lot of bits housed around there – chemoreceptors, baraoreceptors, lungs, thymus, arteries, lymph nodes, spine, circulating blood and air, esophagus, diaphragm. When we bring our attention to this area, when we just feel what comes up, we are contacting the heart of yoga. Our yoga.

Bringing ease to the muscles and joints around this area can be the beginning or development of this process. This is where many of us Western Yogis start, with asana. Maybe a little breathing practice. Then we might start calling that pranayama. Maybe we meditate for stress reduction. Somewhere along the way we realize these pesky emotions are less pesky, the aches are less achey, the mind is less muddled.

“The heart is the resting place of the pranas, the senses and the mind. It’s your true self, which is identified with intelligence and which finds repose in the space within your heart.” ~Nikhilananada’s Intro to The Principal Upanishads

So then we explore pratyahara – sense withdrawal. But then, where do the senses go? Niky above, says to the space within your heart, your true self. Makes some sense – it’s quieter there than the head or stomach. The feelings come up, but maybe we’re in a place where we can uncouple them enough from the words and judgments to just let them be a bit.

Now we’re practicing saucha in our hearts. Saucha – cleanliness, purity. We don’t often think of it in regard to our hearts, but after we’ve gotten glimpses of the Love that lives there, it makes sense not to store our crap on the porch. If we keep the windows clean maybe it will shine more brightly. The Sanskrit word for this place – Anahata – can be translated “unstruck”. “The space within your heart  is omnipresent and unchanging.” (~Chhandogya Upanishad ) Always with us, always available for us to touch and feel is a place that is unstruck by the blows of life, unmoved by the compliments and criticisms, the lost jobs and the awards. It is always what it is. We are always who we are. Sometimes we just cover it up with judgments, which are really old experiences in new clothes. Film on our windows.

Maybe this is the impetus to poke our noses into the pesky ethical side of yoga.  But if you’ve been cleaning your windows all by yourself, and someone gives you a step ladder and an extension for your sponge, you’ll be pretty glad to pay attention. And they’re pretty simple, deceptively so. Love, Truth, Conserve your energy, Be quiet, Be fierce, Stay Open, Be present, Learn you’re not in control, Study your experience, Respect Others’ Boundaries. But Wow! try to practice ’em all at once! That’ll give any college Ethics Professor a run for her money.

So you keep coming back to the place of quiet stillness to which your mat has become the doorway. “The heart is the hub of all sacred places; go there and roam.” ~Bhagavan Nityananda 

As I was building my website over at yogaeveryday.org and typing my slogan, I was struck by how it read differently in that commercial setting. True, it’s also a yoga website. And it’s my business, how I let people know what I have to offer. And in that context, it suddenly struck me: am I pimping yoga?

Will yoga give you love? will it make your words true? and will it make you beautiful? and what’s this “Here, Now” stuff? What am I, a three year old? Immediate results?

And the answers are no, yoga will not give you anything. Because anything that can be given is a) not already present in the receiver, and b) an object. That’s the “Yoga IS…” part. Yoga isn’t a plan or program and it’s not a way to find love or beautify your body (though these things happen along the way). Yoga is the space between awareness and thought that Eckhart Tolle spent 10 weeks pointing toward and getting us interested in. Yoga is the silent space where what is has room to breathe and reveal itself. Yoga is the shadow under which we find shade for rest and contemplation of the deeper grains of our existence.

Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now. It’s my way of pointing with words to that expansiveness of mind we’re all seeking, the eternal Now in which the chatter vanishes or becomes so remote as to be inconsequential. The eternal Here in which we realize the rock bottom truth of our oneness with all beings. It is not a love we are given, it is The Love we Are. It is not the truth of argumentation or description – those all rely on dualism and leaving something out, the something that would shift the gestalt onto a tangent – it is the Truth we are under all the masks, and to which we return, and – when we are acting from this Truth – from which we proceed with certainty. Yoga is Beauty, not the one you’ll become, but the revelation that you already ARE.

I’m well into the week of the Camel and some days I’ve indulged in a long Camel-centered practice, breathing length and openness into my shoulders, exploring the relation of my triceps to my shoulder girdle, using them to open more fully. (More on that in another post!) Some days I’ve had 5 minutes there of Sun Salutes, 10 of standing and busted out a camel in between.

I’m reminded through all of this that what camels do is store water. So, am I storing refreshing hydration for extended use, or shedding what has been stored because I didn’t digest it when I first took it in?

And I realize, the camel can’t drink until it creates room anew. It has to use its precious store of glistening droplets before it can drink deeply once more.

And the beauty of this pose is that I’m releasing and drinking simultaneously. I am storing sustenance. I am also letting go to make room. Exchange.

And the letting go can be hard. I’m through the initial terror I wrote about last year (see previous post) . And your responses have taught me that I have been in good company: many of us have stored scary and scared feelings in our guts, hearts and voices.

My new challenge is to release through all the layers of my existence. I’m finding that little – one might even say, petty – annoyances and feelings are coming to light. Feelings, judgments, ideas, words I thought I’d left behind. Ones that don’t bear repeating, but let me assure you they’re embarrassing to find tucked away. And they don’t just confine themselves to my mat. They help themselves to the rest of my day, too. Rude these little judgments are. See! There’s another of those rascals!

What is different is that while they register as feelings, they register as “mine” at first, I am finding it possible to let go of the embodied hooks, see them as “not mine, not not mine”, and not re-store them in new the clothes and layers of new judgments. Now, this isn’t a seamless process, and I’ll be perfecting it a long while. But I’m noticing noticing these packages I’ve left for my new self from all my old selves, and it’s allowing me to be more loving to all of them. And to let a lot go.

So that’s my challenge in the week of the Camel: to be a witness to my own experience, to not get lost in it, to let it do what experience does, which is to pass. And so to be able to fill up anew.

What’s yours?

Chapter 9 of a A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle is entitled “Inner Purpose”.  We’ve brought our reflection on pain bodies and time and flowers and ego and roles to this chapter . Our inner purpose is all the same, according to Tolle:  “to align to the present moment”, “say yes to life”, “say yes to now.” How has your awareness changed with your reflections? Do you find more moments of presence among your everydayness? Has the process been gradual or startling for you?

“You can only be successful.” (270) How does it feel to read this?

What do you know when you are still?

Do you have an outer purpose? Does it bring you joy? How aligned are your outer purpose and inner purpose? What do you do to bring inner purpose into everything you do?

“Whenever you become anxious or stressed, outer purpose has taken over, and you lost sight of your inner purpose. You have forgotten that your state of consciusness is primary, all else is secondary” (p. 266). What do you do that reminds you that you are awareness, to “say yes to now” and align to the present moment?

How does it feel when you give people your 100 percent full attention? “Am I total in what I do?” Eckhart urges us to ask. Do you notice the activity – the buying or selling or caretaking – takes a secondary seat? Do you enjoy surrendering yourself to each interaction?

“…the most significant thing that can happen to a human being has already happened within you: the beginning of the separation process of thinking and awareness.” (p. 262)

Join us at ANewEarth.Gather.com at 7pm EDT (that’s 5 MDT) for discussion!

I was listening to Elizabeth Lesser’s discussion after A New Earth aired last week (I download it on iPod for my walking pleasure) and was so taken with Kim Eng’s integration of the spirit and silence evoked in the book on which the web class is based. She teaches movement based awareness, and counts yoga among her “modalities” with Chi Kung and T’ai Chi. She talked about progressing from breath, to sensation to innerbody feeling. I’ve been using this as a sort of template for myself and for my class, and the results have been, well, peaceful.

She brought people to their own silence by first suggesting a breath focus. She progressed to noticing sensation – usually tension, stress – but not naming it. Just being it, being with it.  She calls this the outer body. And finally, casting your attention, awareness, your inner gaze on your own sense of aliveness. She suggested the question “How do you know you are alive?” Answered not by words, not by concepts, but in silence, by feeling.

This corresponds in essence to a yogic view of embodiment. Since I don’t relate to yoga as a modality, but as a way of being – like the Tao – encompassing and companioning other ways, I just see the reality to which different systems point. Yogic Philosophy describes embodiment as “koshas” – sheaths. There is a purely physical, the food body, there is energy or breath, there is interactive mind, there is the wisdom body and finally just bliss. Each within and among the others. One way to say what yoga is, is to focus on allowing the alignment of these koshas, or bodies. Allowing, because it’s not a relationship that can manufactured, only facilitated. The kinks and blocks are part of the whole and awareness is alchemical element that dissolves what demands dissolution, cleanses what clings to what is not its own, awakens what is dormant and grows what is nascent.

And breath awareness is lovely, immediate access that defies conceptualization, making it an open and wide entryway into the space we all are.  Sensation really takes the open awareness and gives it a finite determined object  with which to practice open awareness. And aliveness, chi, prana, spirit: awareness opened on this vista gives rise to presence and joyful action. That’s really the point of it all.

 

  YogaEveryDay:

Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now

weekly newsletter: inspiration and tips for including bliss in your day, every day

 

 

  “Why do you run towards that which you have never taken a step away from?” ~Dogen

 

 

 

New yoga class times – different locations!

Sunday evening at YogaNow! 6pm, stay after for Sangha, chanting and mediatiom  (Sangha suggested donation of $10)

Starting 5/17: Saturday Morning Mixed Level class at YogaNow! 7:30

Starting 5/19: M-W-F Morning Mixed Level classes at Ripple Effect 7:00 

Starting 5/30: Friday Slow Restorative at YogaNow! 4:15

 

Send me your yoga class wish list!

I’m adding classes and locations starting in late May. I already have some newly scheduled classes listed above, but I want to know about your dream class: time, place and format. Be as general or specific as you want!

 

off the mat: 

Office Yoga:  Once an hour stop for a moment of breath. Remember the heart opening exercise from last week, roll your shoulders onto your back, relax your eyes, temples, jaw, tongue and neck. Find a rhythm and depth in your breath, expanding your belly, chest and shoulders, releasing in the reverse order, and observing the pause at the top and bottom. Return to work with increased clarity and vigor! 

                                                                                                 

A New Earth:Chapter 7 “Finding Who You Truly Are”

Gnothi Seauton: Know Thyself

 

 Eckhart Tolle’s newest book is called A New EarthI have been asked to host one of the discussion groups for his ongoing web class in conjunction with Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. You can find my official site at YogaEveryDay.Gather.com with articles and comments. You can write your own article and respond to others on this website as well as join the live discussions held Tuesdays on ANewEarth.Gather.com (you do have to be a member… it’s free to sign up). I’m leading discussion this coming Tuesday, April the 8th at 10am MDT and then again Tuesday , April the 22nd and 29th 5pm MDT. 

Of course you can always check in on yogaeveryday.  wordpress.com for my reflections on reading and daily practice or yogaguide.wordpress.com for class and practice guides.

 

Asana of the week: or in this case, lots of ’em!

 

Surya Namaskar:  Begin in mountain, standing with your hands folded, thumbs touching your heart. Exhale, drop hands, Inhale circle overhead, perhaps lifting your heart for a gentle standing backbend. Exhale, dive forward into a forward fold, knees bent so your belly rests on your thighs. Inhale, extend your head away from your tailbone, rolling shoulders onto your back looking forward. Exhale, step back with your right foot into a lunge (drop your right knee for more ease in the pose). Inhale, lengthen the rib cage away from the pelvis. Exhale, step the left leg back to plank, top of a pushup. Drop your sternum between your shoulder girdles, bringing your shoulderblades together on your back (again, drop knees for more ease). Inhale length, bringing belly toward spine, exhale down to knees – chest – chin (inchworm).Inhale, roll your shoulderblades up and onto your back, pressing  your low belly and tops of feet into ground, raise your head and shoulders away from the ground for cobra. Exhale, pressing into the thumb sides of your hands & rolling your toes under, lift the hips back and up, turning your sitting bones to the sky for downward facing dog. Take five, luxurious breaths and on your fifth exhalation, bring the right foot forward between your hands for a lunge on the other side. Inhale lengthen your tailbone away from your head. Exhale step left foot forward next to right for a forward fold. Inhale, circling the arms up and out come up with a flat back (belly toward spine!) to upward hands, looking up, open heart. Exhale hands back down midline to your heart. Stay here until your breath normalizes, repeat, starting with left foot back, ending with left foot up.

 

Mountain

uphands

forward fold

flat back

lunge

plank

inchworm

cobra

downdog

lunge

forward fold

uphands

Mountain

 

Try 20 minutes of sun salutations in the morning and see how supple and energized you feel!

 

Pranayama of the week:

 Begin with three part yogic breath (above). At the end of an exhalation bring your imagination to your tailbone. Now, imagine on your inbreath that you can drink your breath up your spine from tailbone to skull. Feel the breath on your soft pallette at the back and top of your throat, pulling it upward, sipping the breath up your internal core. Exhale, feel it drain back downward. Feel an energizing connection between your soft palette and pelvic floor. Try for a minute, increasing if you want, any time you want relaxation, connection, awareness.            

 
My mission is to inspire and support you in your daily yoga practice. Relax! Remember, It’s all yoga: you’re always breathing. Sometimes you even know it! For questions, comments, to find out more about practices or ideas mentioned here or how you can get more yoga into your week, call me, Christine Stump, at 505-506-0136 or email me at yogaguides@gmail.com. Namaste.