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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.

Thanks to Alisa who left a comment on the Jalandara Bandha post and asked about Mula and Uddiyana. I loved her description of the method she’d been using and tried it:

“So far, the best practice I know if is putting my hands on a sticky mat and my feet on a tray and sliding the tray backwards and forwards without bending my knees.”

What a fantastic idea! I think this process really gets to the feeling of the bandha, but maybe isn’t ideal for discriminating among the deeper layers that reveal themselves over time. David Life has  great article on the layers and how Mula Bandha relates to two distinct mudras in the same area on the Yoga Journal Page under “Practice”, called “To Infinity and Beyond!”

I usually begin to teach Mula Bandha as part of a breathing practice called kalabhati, rapid and forceful exhalations generated from rapid contractions of the low belly. When you compress the transverse abdominus which runs laterally between the pelvic crests, you naturally also lift the pelvic floor from pressure and attachments (not the egoic kind, the connective tissue kind).

From there we work imaginitively, because the most important and difficult part of this process is to actually feel with nuance this area of your own body. Most people don’t, thank you very much, and it can feel uncomfortable to refer to these areas when you’re unused to feeling them.

I begin with the usual references to Kegel Excercises, with the caveat that this is starting place. Mula Bandha begins with a contraction of the pelvic floor which is an intricate network of fascia, other connective tissue and muscles with either two or three openings, depending upon your gender. Kegel gets to the front opening. “Contract Uranus!” gets to the posterior. What we’re aiming for is a subtle lifting sensation above the perineum, and when you engage it you’ll feel instantaneously bright minded. It’s like your energy just bounced up from a trampoline.

And that is the final image I like with this exercise, usually performed sitting in Sukhasana or Virasana. Imagine a flat drum stretched from sitting bone to sitting bone, and from your tailbone up to the front of your pelvis. As your breath lands gently on this drum, it snaps gently back into the body, sending the breath upward. If in Virasana, press the knees together gently to tug the sitting bones slightly and tighten the trampoline.

Breathe, Love, Live!

What is the relationship between our senses and our minds? Whether this is a bottom up or top down system differentiates millenia of philosophers. One thing is for sure, though, the more we take in, the more we must digest, and the excess becomes mental fat. The “vrttis” – vacillations – aren’t of themselves mental fat, but any unprocessed intake gets stored – whether its Twinkies (do they still make those any more?) or Desperate Housewives, cross words or imaginary what-ifs we call “worry.”

Sensation – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – the information we bring in from our embodied existence, makes up our being & life as much as the greens in our salad or the tofu on our forks. By using time on the mat to simplify and observe our sensations, we get to know ourselves better. We can recognize patterns in how we relate to this information, and even the systems we use to buffer it.

One key when observing the role of the senses in my life is to note the double edged sword that is recursive consciousness. Recursive consciousness is this ability we have to have “second order mental events.” Mental events can be thoughts, ideas, concepts, feelings, emotions, whole stories even, or just attitudes towards first order senses, thoughts, emotions. Our ability to be aware of the fact that we are aware of something is precisely what gives us the option to be present. It’s also what gives us the option to “space out” or worry or plan or… do whatever we do that is not being present.

We can event have eleventh order thoughts! Thoughts about thoughts about feelings about what-ifs about imaginations about …. you get the idea. The point where the thought or feeling has grabbed you by the intestines and you’re off to the story-telling races with the what-ifs and not-that!’s, that’s the stickiness that I’ve learned from listening to Pema Chodron is called shenpa. My husband & I love this word: it’s so economical. Rather than getting caught up in the stories when one asks the other “what’s up?” or “where you at?”, we just say, “oh! I was having some shenpa!” It’s fantastic to break up the story and bring us back to the present.

What does this have to do with the role of the senses? One of the ways you can break shenpa – or unconsciously having thoughts about thoughts about… also called “living in your head” – is to come to the nitty gritty of our senses. What am I feeling right now? Seeing? Smelling? Hearing? Tasting? Feeling?

You may have heard the word “Pratyahara” in yoga class at some point. Pratyahara – or sense-withdrawal – is one of the eight limbs, or components, of yoga . Sometimes the best way to investigate is to simplify. Short of a sensory deprivation tank – which is way cool if you ever have the chance – intentional withdrawal from sensation can be a great way to investigate how we relate to sensations. There are many ways to go about this, from simply turning off the TV or radio, to going to a quiet place like the woods or a chapel or a yoga room, to more specific withdrawals. Brahmari Pranayam is one way of experiencing pratyhara: you fill your consciousness with the vibration of your own breathing even as you close off your years, eyes, mouth and to some extent your nose. Meditation after Brahmari, or Bumble Bee Breath, can increase your sense of clarity.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Sri Swami Sachidananda’s Commentary, because I think it’s sweet and true:

“One example is to concentrate on the tip of the nose. Do not strain or you will cause a headache. Do not actually stare at the nose; it’s as if you are looking at it. Keep the mind on that. If the mind is really one-pointed, after some time you will experience an extraordinary smell. You may even look around to see if there is any flower or perfume nearby. If that experience comes, it is a proof that you have made the mind one-pointed. It will give you confidence. But in itself, it will not help you to reach the goal. It’s just a test, that’s all. Don’t make concentrating on the nose and getting nice smells your goal.”  ~SriSwami Satchidananda, Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

I recently dowloaded and listened to a meditation course that was recorded during a retreat with the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron, and I’m taking it again. She is endlessly kind and unflinchingly firm, difficult qualities to simultaneously embody. When I meditate, I’m also deeply aware that I’m trying to embody qualities that don’t always go together in my everyday life.

Chodron is quite clear that meditation is training. Just like marathoners or weight lifters, meditators are training. Instead of watching TV and training to be consumers,  cushion sitting geeks train for mindfulness. I like to think of her as coach, because just like my track running days, I now wonder when I’m in doubt “What would PC say?” instead of “Would Coach Bode approve?” Unlike my errant highschool days, however, I’ve internalized a number of PC’s ways of describing and relating, so I’m more likely to heed the advice.

I used to wonder how much you could usefully say about meditation. I mean, it’s watching, right? So, um, watch. But of course the purpose of this observation is to become familiar with all the tricks you will use to squirm out from under the scope. And to become kind with the squirmee, because if you can’t be kind to you, it won’t be sincere with anyone else. And in this way, we might, with some luck, learn compassion. So instruction is endlessly helpful when it helps us catch ourselves before we’ve run too far amock.

And one of PC’s standbys is to direct us to our outbreath. The instruction is to follow the breath, of course. But sometimes, the simple must be simplified, and for those times, Be Breathing Out. Two parts to notice: first, it’s not describe or control or think about breathing out. And second, it’s the exhalation.

Now there seems to be some magic about breathing out. The Yoga Sutras are delightfully practical in giving us options for enlightenment: try this, & if not that, try this, and see how that works. The empirical nature of the Yoga Experiment is one of the reasons it works. It looks like self-improvement, so it appeals to the ego. But once you’re there, you realize that there is here and here is really the only place to be, so Be.

Now why would breathing out be so magical? Proper exhalation is necessary to maintain the acid-base balance in the body, it’s the first line of defense, in fact. Exhalation has long been recognized an equivalent of letting go: witness, the sigh. Is there any more potent signal of surrender, whether welcome or overdue?

And let’s not neglect the fact that what we’re dealing with are obstacles to self-knowledge. So often when frustrated with an obstacle of any kind, we push – emotionally, figuratively or literally. The last sutra gave us ways of meeting many things that look like “Others” in our daily lives – the virtuous and unvirtuous, the happy and unhappy. Here we are told that if discipline fails, it’s ok to just let go. Let the reins drop a moment. Exhale. Sigh. Release.

Sure, there’s more to advanced pranayama and practices of Kumbacha, or retention. But as Sri Satchidananda points out, Patanjali isn’t writing a Pranayam Manual. It’s an enlightenment manual. How to allow yourself to be yourself in your day-in-day-out. Why you should care and why if you care you will train. And why, if you put in just a little bit of effort, your motivation will grow in ways you didn’t earlier forsee.

Sometimes all it takes is one sigh, and sometimes, it takes exhaling over and over again, feeling it, being it. It depends on what you’re up to. But if you train in the over and over on the cushion or on the mat, you’ll be far more likely to remember to exhale when it really counts, just before those words you can’t take back spring from your mouth. Just one break, one gap, one pause between breaths, and obstacles can lessen or disappear.

Jenni on this Sutra: …”Bouanchaud writes that traditionally the exhalation and suspending breath after exhalation symbolizes humility and sacrifice. … to let go into the exhalation, and experiencing the rich filled emptiness afterwards – humbling in the best of ways. And “I” don’t have to do it – if “I” wait long enough it gets done through me :-)”

& Kate on this Sutra:…” Since mind was the problem, her solution was to give the mind something else to play with. Instead of attending to the sensations in my chest, she advised me to pay attention to the sensations of breath in my nose, the coolness of the inhale past the septum and the warm humidity of an outward breath on the upper lip.“…

“This week’s sutra ought to be emblazoned in all public places.” ~Dharmayoga

I’ve been given the power to delegate 🙂 and so I do. I delegate: reading the newspaper to my boyfriend, big bosoms to some of my girlfriends, eating sugar to my kids, enjoying hunting to the hunters and giving the kids a cat to my ex. (at his house).
What I get out of this practice, is SERENITY. If I really believe we are all one – than I truly can enjoy soo many things.
~Jenni

If there was any doubt that yoga is more than what happens on the mat, here’s the antidote. The first time I heard this quoted,  I wrote it down and soon thereafter was digging in the Sutra like it was a life raft.

Sounds so simple: be friendly to happy folk, compassionate toward unhappy, take joy in good action and try not to get to het up about the bad stuff. Yoga is about the path, the everyday, every breath, every moment, what am I getting so excited about, where’d all my energy go, what’s it all about and how do I figure it out path.

Simple is not easy, though. I wrote this on the clipboard I carry everywhere at work and when I felt my heart skip or my dander rise, I’d look at it. So much of behaviour is reactive and what this Sutra asks us to do is choose how we respond. Don’t react, respond, and do that with consideration… for your own peace.

One of the things I admire about the translation above from Mukunda Stiles is that where other translators state these responses will bring us peace or quiet mind, he states they reduce obstacles to self-knowledge. In Sanskrit, the claim is “Citta prasadanam” which has overtones both of purification and calmness  regarding the mind. “Lessening obatacles to self-knowledge” reminds us we are discussing the path that leads to yoga, which happens in the mind that isn’t identified with its disturbances. We can, little by little, step away from all our identifications, the things we act like matter even when we would say they don’t if asked point-blank, but we react to them as if they were everything, and so make them into our world.

Peace comes from self-knowledge. In such a state we are transparent to the truth of our own being. How to reach this state? Start taking the veils off the dancer: the obstacles to self-knowledge must fall. But like any drunken reveller, when the veils start to ripple and fly we want to get caught up in them: Ooooo, look at how they catch the light! look at how they ruffle over the surface! smell how they catch the heady scent! We forget that the veils aren’t what they cover over, or we tire of the effort steady abiding, and we settle for the ruffle and sparkle, running off in the direction of the wind.

In this sutra we are aksed to tend to our own responses to our worlds and in return, the world to which we respond will reveal itself as different than we’ve previously experienced. Not sure changing the world can be so simple? Try it. Practice your equanimity when buffetted with derision or insult. Practice being undefended and friendly when you are around happiness. Practice being undefended at all. Undefended and compassionate in the presence of Sadness? How do you keep your heart open and your boundaries clear? Yoga is a razor’s edge and you walk it with your heart. When you truly open your heart in experience, the world you experience transforms, and so do you.

Where to start? In your next human interaction, your next breath. Heck, have you practiced compassion and undefendedness with your own precious self? Be friendly toward your own happiness, befriend and cultivate it. Have equanimity when you catch yourself in bad behaviour – no self-derision, no guilt. Steadiness, abiding breath and choice, whether in line or Ardha Chandrasana, these are the things that build our practice.

So far in the Sutras we have been told that conscious awareness, or awareness of Being in the present moment,  is the key to yoga, or as I’m choosing to term it for this conversation: listening. The obstacles that precipitate during the process of yoga are things that scatter the mind and lead to suffering. We encounter suffering as the obstacles transmute.

One way to steady the mind is to repeat the sound of “Aum“, and Patanjali has told us that this actually makes the obstacles disappear. But there are two handles we can use to turn the mind: obstacles present as a result of former states of consciousness, and obstacles we create with our current state of consciousness.

Pema Chodron in one of her stunningly loving & peircing dharma talks (I can’t remember which or I’d tell you… it might be “Getting Unstuck”) refers to this process with the metaphor of a potter’s wheel. The turning of the wheel creates the pottery, and the turning is perpetuated by the motion of the potter. There is an inherent momentum which drives the wheel, but we can choose to kick it every so often to keep it going.

The obstacles, or causes of suffering, are a consequence of the container we form on the wheel. As long as the wheel, our mind, turns the container is being created. Some call this process karma. You can also call it ego. It has an inherent momentum, actions and reactions that grow from what it is, which in turn is a result of what we have done and been. We can mold it by kicking the wheel to keep it turning. Even if we’ve taken our hands off the clay – “Look ma! No hands!” – if we keep kicking the wheel we’re unwittingly creating our container. And unwitting doesn’t mean un-responsible. It just means we’re not paying attention.

So how do we keep from kicking the wheel, from encouraging the momentum of our habits? How do we keep from building onto our container? And how do we abide its dissolution when we still our minds? First, by remembering we are not any of our things, roles, thoughts or conditions. And we can support that present moment consciousness, in which we know we are not this or that, through meditation on a single principle. Is that the same as repetition on the sound of “Aum” or concentration on the breath? That all depends.

On the path, we don’t just awaken all at once, stop our vices, extricate ourselves from our histories, cease desiring all that we’ve built our facades around. Our hopes, dreams, pleasures and pains transmute. We don’t simply become non-attached from the whole world in a moment. In fact, I’d be mighty suspect of someone who claimed to do so. I don’t know about you, but there’s a very fine distinction in my life between attachment and joyful duty. In fact, I’d say I’m attached to my most joyful duties, my husband, my dogs, my practice and my patients. I’m downright in love with them. But that’s another post.

For now, it’s enough to say that as we ponder and navigate the meaning of non-attachment, of how not to muddy the river after the distractions have precipitated during a given days’ practice, steadiness is a virtue. Given that all objects arise from the same source, it doesn’t ultimately matter which you choose. What matters is the steadiness and clarity of your focus upon it.

Which is not to say that any and every image, feeling or idea is equivalent. Some objects aren’t conducive to steady concentration. Some objects foster the depression, frustration and dissipation we looked at in the previous sutra. So, for instance, focusing on being frustrated wouldn’t be particularly helpful. However, becoming aware of where you feel that in your body, what sensations arise for you in a moment you feel as frustration, that might be a practice that returns you to your present moment awareness. Or chanting “Aum”, or “One”, or picturing a waterfall or praying in your tradition… the possibilities are endless, but not unbounded.

In the end, I’m reminded of one of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose“: #5 Something that you feel will find its own form.

Since we’re joining a conversation in progress, I thought I’d give you a cheap and dirty blow by blow of what’s been covered so far, like the beginning of a TV show. Patanjali begins Chapter 1 – or Samadhi Pada (on Being Absorbed in Spirit) – with the formulaic “Hatha Yoga Nusasanam”: Now yoga instruction. (btw: if you ever want to hear or learn the chanting of the Sutras, I recommend Sonja Nelson’s 4 CD set, guarunteed to plant the seeds in your soul).

I use Mukunda Stile’s translation because I like the gentleness and power of his poetry, but I reference four others: Sri Swami Satchindananda (his commentary bores through the distractions of my vascillating mind), Charles Johnston (very dualistic, but often a brilliant turn of phrase), Desikachar (because he’s Desikachar, mais non?!), Georg Feuerstein (see prior + historical interreference).

So, Now Yoga Instruction. Which I often think of re-arranged as “Yoga Instruction leads us to Now.” As in “The Now”, the ever present but never changing moment of consciousness. The very next sentence (or sutra: they’re arranged as sutras, or threads – aphorisms such as Wittgenstein and the Old Testament have used) tells us that yoga happens in the mind that listens, or Yoga Citta Vrtti Nirodaha: “Yoga is experienced in the mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.” Whoa. Yeah. But this is a montage for under the opening credits, so we’ll move on.

When the mind settles, the Self is revealed as the ever-present witness. The way to settle the mind is through practice and non-attachment. Knowledge is required because it guides what & how we practice and reminds us why attachment is distraction: the things we usually desire and go after are not the same as what we think we’ll get from them. If we actually pursue what we want our lives to embody, we might not go after some things that we like, but we will create something that encompasses them all the same.

One of the very practical things about the Sutras is that it introduces on level ground many methods of listening, or yoga. If you are depressed or distracted or sick or lethargic, Patanjali has a list of things you could try or consider. Such a plan is very modern, I think, acknowledging the diversity of our histories, places and conditions – even over the course of our own lives, let alone across people and countries.  (Fade out to opening scene for this episode: Relief of Suffering, not just for Buddhas any more….)