find future posts at Your Yoga Practice. Same writing, same Christine, just a new name. Thanks for reading!
don’t see the place to which you fell; see the place from which you slipped.
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.
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.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.
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?
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!
This morning I’m experimenting with a white bean & pear pancake, listening to Sunday Edition and simply soaking up home: the way the light trickles and dashes through windows and prisms creating pools of light where white, black and red dogs soak up their colors; the one wall we have yet to paint in the front room (which is famlivchen: family room, living room, kitchen, dining room) that has become familiar from neglect; the knitting that’s come undone in my box of rose petals; the dog snout on my lap, a gentle breakfast bell; my orange tennies beckoning a walk for the starving dogs, and the scent of pear sugar caramelizing as the “cakes” take form.
I started with one can of white beans & 2 whole pears, blended in a food processor. That tasted wonderful, sprinkled with nutmeg while on the griddle. But it wouldn’t bind and became mashed white beans when I tried to flip it (I already make mashed white beans with onions & roasted garlic for breakfast, and recommend them highly: lots of fibre and heft to start the day, but still light enough for brain brightness. Here, though, I’m hoping for a sweet, fruity pancake experience). So I tried just thinning it & going toward crepe… no go. The addition of half a banana & some baking powder (thank you vegan cooking site) made some progress toward unity: A bit more cakey, but no flippy. So another can of beans, the other half of the banana & 2/3 package Mori Nu silken tofu. Ahhhhh. This one would have flipped if I hadn’t covered the entire bottom of the 9 inch skillet. Lovely golden brown color, smooth and consistent enough to flip and serve!
I’m not sure why or how I get obsessed with creating yummy you’d never guess vegan goodies. I’m not vegan. I’m not even vegetarian. I still eat cow. I drink wine. I eat shrimp and crab and sometimes even cheese. True, not daily or even weekly, but I do eat eggs almost every day and fresh wild fish every week. Why do I not just crack an egg into this blissful pear & bean concoction, flip the cakes and call it a breakfast?
I’m fascinated by the chemistry of food, of how it goes together, how it puts us together, how it feeds and binds and loosens and extracts, and of how my moods and feelings of wellbeing are so intimately connected to it. I’m fascinated by vegan recipes, simultaneously convinced that I am lighter, healthier and freer when I eat this way, while equally persuaded by lightheadedness and animal craving that I’m best off when I occasionally eat meat. True, the lightheadedness doesn’t really start for a couple of weeks and the near criminal lust for blood and flesh doesn’t hit til near the third month. (That’s even combining foods, watching my nutrient balance, not relying on processed cheesey subs or even vegan burgers, but rather eating fruits & veg & nuts & legumes by the boatload… or so it seems to me.)
And so I am content with my little bit of this, little bit of that, tailor made for me, thank you very much diet. I may secretly hope and desire that my forays into vegan culinary miracles (they really are miraculous, you have to make these things to believe the yummy goodness) are a sign and a method of my gradual transformation into vegan lightness.
The smaller cakes are in process right now; I’ve also reduced the temp for slower cooking. Et voila! More crepe like now, I simply lifted with my fingertips the delicately curled, caramel hued edge and turned. At which time I realized that the dogs, who are used to being walked and fed by this time, were languishing and naughtyizing by turns in their upendedness. The second side took precisely the amount of time I used to feed three dogs, complete with fish oil caps (I have to bite the one for Oso open, or he won’t eat it) and kisses. The second batch proved that size really does matter – no more than ¼ cup on the griddle. And you really don’t even have to turn.
These were so yummy even Oso wanted seconds! For a dog who won’t eat his food with a gelcap full of stinky fish oil in it, unless you pop and drizzle the oil for him, that’s an endorsement.
So, having persisted so long, you may wonder, “What has any of this to do with yoga?” Just this: so often, too often, maybe every class and every day, we think we will be “real” yogis (growups, people, mommies and daddies, artists, writers…) when…. We compare ourselves, we improve ourselves, we grasp for the perfect expression of urdva baddha trikonasana (yes, I made that one up). What if all it’s really about, all it really takes is responding to the calls of the moment – the dogs naughtyizing, the light caressing, the cans of beans and the surfeit of pears. That’s all. Just respond to what is, and your response and reflection and desire and creativity will transform you like eddying currents of an oxbowed stream toward… yourself. No goal, no destiny, no fantasy – Only method in the moment, the highest form of experimentation: a jazz riff in the key of om.
1 can white canelli beans, rinsed nutmeg for sprinkling
½ large banana
¾ t. baking powder
1/3 package of Mori Nu silken tofu
¼ – ½ cup of water: the batter should pour lightly
Whirl in food processor til smooth, nearly the consistency of loose pudding.
Warm griddle to medium, lightly dress with your favorite nonstick cooking treatment (grapeseed oil is my fave) and drop by the tablespoonful (no more than 2 at a time). Sprinkle with nutmeg as it begins to bubble and cook through. ~4 minutes, lift off and enjoy!
Write & tell me how you experiment and tweak, with this recipe or with your practice and how it makes you more self and less striving.
To abide is to remain, to witness, to sustain and to look upon with kind regard. To abide is one definition of meditation: to remain with one’s own mind in a state of kind regard. To abide is a gift, a discipline and a way of love & I have the most loving readers in the blogosphere!
I’ve been AWOL for months, focused on other areas of my practice, following lights I didn’t at first realize would lead me away from blogging. And yet, you keep visiting, reading & letting me know you are out there. My own practice has become more vigorous and maybe you’ve been following the CampNYoga developments on Twitter or Facebook. How has your practice evolved in recent months?
So while the Dude Abides, I come & go and I’M BACK! I’ll be posting about weekly and next week I’ll have an update on the first, invitation only CampNYoga, complete with photos 🙂 Twice daily yoga and meditation classes, dharma talk with Kirtan on Saturday evening, massage in camp, gourmet organic camp cooking, wine sponsored by Meagan the Wine Goddess at ABQ Whole Foods. We’re not calling it a retreat, because it’s an advance: we’re retreating from nothing, we’re embracing our lives with Love. Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now. Peace.