About the Body – Hatha, The Heart and the Thoracic Spine

Hatha Yoga in the classical sense is a journey of integration where the body becomes the perfect vehicle for a different kind of consciousness – the adamantine body.  This happens through integration – where the physical form is transformed by the substance of that consciousness. Through breath and positioning the energy channels of the body – the nadis – become clear.  Allowing yourself to experience breath in the varieties of positions  is essential.  And I use the word “experience” deliberately.  It isn’t about forcing the breath through a posture that feels stuck.  It’s about being easeful and allowing enough that the breath can still be felt and enjoyed regardless of what shape you in.  In that sense it is a cleansing the breath is a cleansing solvent for the nadis.  There is not better place to breathe than in a posture where you are bumping up again your limitations.  Often they are not muscle and bone, they are energetic – energy is stagnant.  And, when the energy is stagnant, so is your mind.  Movement is so important, and yoga asana is designed for this.  This cleansing of the physical form allows the spirit to become more tangible in the physical realm.  A well-done posture facilitates this integration.

That intersection of matter and spirit begins at the level of the thoracic spine – at the heart.    The integration is simplest and most straightforward in the backbends.  This alignment of these two forces (material and spiritual) occurs when the feet are well positioned. Parallel the feet in a back bend and the point of integration of the primary opposing forces – of gravity and upliftment  is shifted from the lumbar spine to the thoracic spine.  This  creates a gentle, subtle space in that very restricted area.  You will know the opening has occurred by the way you feel.  There may be tears or a sense of wonder or great love which occurs with the opening.  The practice at that juncture is to be spacious and allowing of the powerful feelings which unfold -and to understand that your practice is moving into another level – beyond mere physical release and into transformation. 

Interested in stepping a little more deeply into the philosophy and inner practices of yoga? I send a newsletter once a week or less, in conjunction with blog posts, where we explore the inner practices of yoga within the context of a life. Sometimes drawn directly from the traditional yoga texts, and sometimes just commentary on the big picture of a yoga practice – I always intend it to convey something that will be useful to you. I don’t sell anything in these newsletters – it’s an offering and a way to keep my own practice fresh.

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About the body:  Empowerment and Ease

About the body:  Yoga and the Parasympathetic nervous system

When we breathe calmly, peacefully, rhythmically through the nostrils, we ignite our parasympathetic nervous system – the relaxation response.  In that mode – many things happen.  Rigid long held stress patterns in the body dissolve, the immune system is nourished and deep healing occurs.  It is also easier to access deeper levels of inner states of consciousness – which allow for different perceptions of the world – for transformation on the level of mind. 

As we take a posture we want to ignite this kind of easeful experience while remaining awake, alert and active.  The more challenging a posture is for us – the more powerful it will be to nurture this kind of breathing.  This is pivotal in transforming our life experience from being a person with a body that is always controlling us – to being a person who has some degree of mastery over the physical and energetic bodies.  It’s important.  

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About the Body: The Body as a Communication Device

In the classic medieval text the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” or The Guiding Light of the Yoking of the Sun and Moon – we learn that in classical yoga, the practice of Hatha Yoga culminates in the body’s resonance with the sound of “Om”.  We are tuned by the practice to a vibration where opposites are united and revealed as facets of one source. That state of unity creates a particular feeling tone. In my experience when that happens, we are feeling the love of the universe within our own form.  To do this, the biochemical aspect of the body requires cleansing (diet and various cleansing practices – the shat karma kriyas – the process of sweating during practice), the musculoskeletal system needs to be toned and balanced, and the energy body, emotions and the mind require discipline and clearing through meditation and sound practices (Om) and adjustments in personal care and ways of relating.  I know it sounds like a lot, but for most of us we do a little at a time, transforming at a pace that is appropriate for us.  The result of this is a clear “sound”.  We can hear it in the sound of our voice.  We can also hear it inside us as our intuition and wisdom become illuminated.  A common test is to listen to your Om at the beginning and end of the class. Or any old time you feel out of tune.  This clarity of resonance or lack there of is key to our capacity to communicate.  If you’ve ever tried to sort things out with a friend when you felt foggy day you know it’s more difficult than  when you are awake and clear.  The body is a communication device – not just with our tongues and mouths, but with our posture, the brightness of our eyes, and our health.  Imbalance in our system is reflected in the body.  And through working with techniques of Hatha Yoga we can bring the system back into balance. 

A good place to start is always the musculoskeletal system. The density of the bones and the memory capacity for the fascial tissue and muscles impacts the balance of the whole body mind spirit system.  So how do we start? 

All yoga starts with Tadasana – or Mountain  -or Simple Standing Posture.  It is so simple and straightforward that every tension is apparent. We just stand upright with the balance of the weight distributed evenly across the soles of the feet, arms alongside the body.  Personally, I never try to force change in Tadasana.  I use it as a measure.  How is my Tadasana at the beginning of practice? What is it like at the end.  Like the Om, it’s often very different, reflecting as greater state of balance and resonance.  Sometimes I’ll just stand in it for a long time and feel the tension patterns surface. 

Those tension patterns can tell us a lot about how we could create positive change in our lives.  There is no formula.  For me it’s always my hamstrings get short and tight and my head juts forward.  Over the years – through spacious self-reflection and input from yoga colleagues – I’ve come to know that when that pattern emerges – some piece of me is not in the present moment.  I’m hanging on to a belief, or perception or way of being that doesn’t serve me anymore.  Often by the time my body communicates something – I’ve been ignoring it for a while.  Sometimes insights about what needs to change will emerge during asana practice, sometimes meditation or the other forms of practice can help to illuminate the issues.  The key is to seek to understand in a receptive way rather than just to fix or overcome and that understanding lays the groundwork for transformation of the body and everything else through my practice.

My newsletter lays a philosophical ground drawn from Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.40 to work with in conjunction with this blog post. Take a look here: To Know – Results of the Experience of Yoga – https://mailchi.mp/4f8d72e44e70/to-know-yoga-and-the-experience-of-knowing

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About the Body: Navasana:  The Boat that Crosses Samsara

The imagery of yoga is embedded in the understanding of yoga.  On one level the imagery is just about communicating an idea – how to convey an abstract principle in a way that all kinds of students can understand.  On another level it is about communicating technique – something is called what it is called for a reason.  On another level it ignites our spiritual know which supports the execution of the posture. 

One of my favorite examples of the spiritual image of a posture conveying the experience of the posture is  Navasana – boat posture.    In the classical yogic way of looking at life – there is suffering. The practices of yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and the associated behavioral prescriptions are considered a vehicle which can carry us to the other side of suffering – peace, joy and liberation.  The suffering is global and cosmic.  It’s also deeply personal, intimate and immediate. The capacity of the global suffering to land as the personal experience of suffering in our lives is mitigated by our practice of yoga.   The uncomfortable experience may be present, but we don’t experience it the same way when we are well practiced.  Navasana, or boat posture, is an asana where we embody the boat which can safely convey us across the vast presence of suffering in the cosmos to the safe shore of the state of yoga. 

 At its worst, Navasana is a clench your teeth, grin and bear it hold your breath posture.  At its best we lightly balance on our sitz bones, heart lifted, reaching our toes to the sky.   We can aspire to endure the posture or to understand the posture enough to find the lift that will take us across the sea of discomfort that life can be.  It’s a posture that invites us to take ourselves lightly.  

In my experience working with students the key to the posture is the connection of the sitz bones to the earth.  Too far forward, the posture will be more challenging than it needs to be – but notice where the challenge emerges in the body.  It points to an area that may need some awakening  try a combination of strengthening and stretching the area with good breath and attention.  Too far back on the sitz bone the heart closes.   To discover the sweet spot for balance prop yourself a bit.  Sit with knees bent.  Place your hands on the floor slightly behind you.  Lift one foot at a time until you feel comfortable with the action.  Lift both feet, then press your hands into the earth and rock forward on your sitz bones, experimenting to find the spot where it’s easiest to hold your feet in the air.  Lift your hands.

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About the Body: A Balanced Connection to the Earth

At its simplest…any asana is wholesomely built on a balanced connection to the earth.  Whatever parts of the body are connected with the earth…evenly distribute the weight throughout that footprint and then reach up and out.  This is an accessible basis of alignment rooted in physical and spiritual realities.   It also does something interesting…done with ease and spacious focused breathing it will re-balance the structure of the body by strengthening that which needs strength and softening imbalanced patterns of tension.  The weight distribution across the seat of the posture (the part of the body which connects to the earth) becomes the limiting factor in how far you take the posture on a given day.  In standing postures the energetic work comes with mastery of the foot structure – what lifts up (the arches) and what roots downs (outer edges and heels) and balancing that dynamic. 

One posture which demonstrates this in an interesting way is Virabadrasana 1 or Warrior 1.  Classically, the back foot is at a 45 degree angle to the front foot.  Reaching into the heel and stretching the front knee forward – we then gently adjust the hips to move the left hip forward.  Sometime this taught instead with the back heel lifted so the hips can be square like a lunge.  The classical version  – with the dynamic of rooting through the feet, allows for grounding and upliftment, stability and joy.  By lifting the back heel into a lunge like position…the position of the hips squared forward becomes primary, and the connection to the earth secondary.  Of course I am clearly biased!  An artful student could apply these ideas in a lunge – like Virabhadrasa 1.  I do believe that a body is similar to any other physical structure.  You wouldn’t build the third floor of a building before you’d built the foundation.   But the point is to investigate  how you are anchoring your posture – and if that creates equanimity, balance, joy.  The word asana refers to a seat or one’s situation in relation to the earth.  In this sense these energetics are also connected to the idea of giving and receiving – taking in and releasing – which is reflected in the breath and in our capacity to be spacious and stable as we move through our lives. 

It’s worth the experiment to explore Virabhadrasana 1 to learn what stability means to you in a kinesthetic sense.  Which approach leads you to feel stable and why?  And which version allows you to reach out and expand in a multitude of directions.  It’s always good to practice an experiment like this consistently over a chosen period of time.  The body will be different every day and life experiences will have an impact on the felt experiences and the actual musculoskeletal alignment on any given day.  Big changes in a life can bring deep changes in the body – by investigating with some consistency in practice as we move through life we can develop insight, clarity and understanding.

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About the Body: Being Present

Our bodies are fields of vibration.  It’s obvious right? Even though it feels woo.  My teeth are denser than my muscles…that means that they are at a lower vibration.  They are more solid. 

An exercise we can use to experience this directly is to focus internally from the densest to the subtle-est. Bones and muscles,  tendons and ligaments, internal organs and the fascial tissue that weaves it all together, and then the boundary of the skin, then feeling the air on the skin.  You can experiment with this yourself. Don’t hesitate to use your imagination to connect with the various parts of the body. 

This simple exercise is priceless in terms of becoming aware of our bodies in time and space.  Often we aren’t in our bodies! We are thinking about past and future…using the imaginal mind to unfurl stories and memories which exist only in our minds.  – when we open our eyes they aren’t here any more, or they don’t exist yet. 

If you’ve ever attended a Vipassana meditation retreat you may have done a simpler more diffuse body scan to begin your meditation practice.

Bringing our attention, focus and awareness back into our bodies is an essential part of the transformation power of yoga.  As we learn to be present to the body in this spacious non-judgmental way, the emotional wounds the body carries can be healed.  The power of this cannot be overestimated.  Carrying a body full of memory interferes with our capacity to fill our present moments with newness- the fullness of our love our creativity. 

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About the Body: A Unique Constellation of Tension and Ease

Each of our bodies is a unique constellation of tension and ease born of the musculoskeletal landscape we were born with, the impact of habits of movement,  the impact of emotional, psychological and physical trauma, and bodily awareness,  In Hatha Yoga, we are invited to iron out these differences – bringing the ecosystem of our individuality into a harmony embodied in the sound vibration of Om.

The seasons are turning cooler, our attentions turn inward yet again, and we are invited to shift gears in our yoga practices. This subtle adjusting of focus and style to harmonize with the seasons is a classical organic element of yoga practice which invites us to consider balance in our lives, our practices and our creative work. In yoga the balance emerges as the fine tuning of our awareness and integration in the pairs of opposites  – activation and ease.  The foundation for this teaching is found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

The postures develop our capacity to discern.  We can consider the following in crafting our personal practices  – the perfect posture is born of cultivating a personal understanding of places in the body you need to activate, and the places in the body that you to would benefit from bringing ease to.  For this  – we can work with large areas of the body (the back of the legs) or more specific areas of the body(the juncture of my sacrum and vertebrae L1) depending on the degree of awareness we have of the nature of the sensation. 

A tool I use to discern tension and holding versus slack and unconsciousness (or lack of any feeling of awareness at all)l is to work with repetitions.

  1. Choose a basic posture, one that is reflective of some physical discomfort you have in life.
  2. Practice this base posture – breathing and scanning the body nonjudgmentally for various sensations.
  3. Practice some postures you believe might be helpful – scanning the body and breathing throughout.
  4. Repeat the base posture – scanning the body again.  What feels different?
  5. Repeat the repetition.

I’ll sometimes go through a repetition sequence several times with several small sequences within a day of practice if I have time.  Sometimes I just run through it once.

Note that  many discomforts in the spine are born of tension in the neck and hips, so you may want to include postures that dress the neck and hips in repetition sequences.

Did you like the post? In my newsletter I dig a little deeper into the philosophical aspects of working with the postures. You will never get more than newsletter a week, and the newsletter is meant for edification and entertainment – not sales.

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About the Body: Breathing into Expansion in Yoga

It’s very popular these days to skip over the restraint practices in yoga (ethical vows, structured asana practice, breathing and concentration practices, lifestyle observations).  Mastering them is the key to transforming yourself and your life through the practices of yoga and is an important facet of practice.  Liberation as intended in classical yoga is a very specific experience.  It’s not about crashing through to a new shape with the body even if it hurts.  It’s not about “doing our own thing” without structure or discipline.   It’s about being awakened into the experience of our spiritual wholeness.    The restraint practices should not, and do not have to be dramatic or drastic.  It might mean staying in a particular posture even if you are a little uncomfortable – maybe sometimes when you are a lot uncomfortable –  in order to move beyond your sense of limitation.   To practice yoga in this way does require a high degree of discernment –  of learning to feel and experience the body and develop skillful means of working with our sensations. To some extent no teacher can really tell us that.

We used to work with the guideline that if the sensation is sharp you need to back off and approach the posture in a different way. For a dull softer discomfort we would generally stay  in the posture and breathe ease into the form.  The sensations we have are never black and white, so a guideline like this can’t be followed blindly. 

We could consider this…if we bump into a tugging resisting sensation, then we are trying to expand in a place where there is currently contraction, and our work then is to find a way to allow the expansion.  Breath is a good starting place, but it requires some attention to how one is breathing. How well you are able to receive an inhale? What conditions support that? Can you allow the lungs to expand? That quality of expansion will travel throughout the body as we allow it, and will gently open our places of deep holding and restrictions. To push against or fight against it will yield a different result. If we soften the mind and the heart and work with wisdom the experience of restraint transforms into its opposite –  the experience of liberation.  Tension melts and we are no longer restricted by tightness.  This transformation of opposites into a unified experience is yoga – to yoke together.   

The restraints imposed by the global experience of pandemic have resulted in massive shifts in the way we live and work and love.  Training ourselves to be spacious and allowing in of those changes fosters our capacity for resilience and blossoming. 

The Fruits of Yoga: Awakening into the Experience of Infinity

About the body

II.47 Patanjali Yoga Sutra Steadiness and ease of posture is to be achieved through persistent slight effort and through the concentration of the mind upon the infinit

II.48 Patanjali Yoga Sutra When this is attained the pairs of opposites no longer limit.

(translation of Sutras by Alice Bailey)

One of the techniques from the classical practices which is really powerful in uniting the two opposites is something called moola bandha.  Moolah is “root” and Banda is lock,  and the experience of moola bandha or root lock can be activated by several different approaches.

On the physical level a very simple way to begin to activate this root lock is to engage in lift the space between the anus and the genitals. Bring your attention to the area and attempt to draw it up and in toward your navel.  Now hold that for your entire practice while breathing at the same time.  For me, to be honest, I have the best luck with this if I work with it in seated forward bends and standing postures.  Some yogi’s can perform this to an extent they levitate the body.  In my opinion working with it on both levels is useful, and working with it simply is safer. 

On and energetic level what moolah bandha does is move the energy in an energy center called the mooladhara chakra(the root chakra) which energizes the entire pelvic girdle. To directly experience our energy requires patience and the cultivation of a subtler level of attention.  But for some, this is easier.  Just know that if you keep practicing consistently and well you will have tangible experiences of this kind of energy and be able to learn to manage it.  As a matter of fact we all feel our energy all the time.  Some examples are the experiences of sexual desire or butterflies in the stomach. When we’re focused on identification with our sexual identity,  our financial identity our tribal identity and our identity as a body (as opposed to as a spiritual being) the energy of this center moves out into the material world. We may notice this as an experience of deep fatigue. The energy also moves outward if we seek our answers outside of ourselves, rather than listening within.

 When we work with Moola Bandha this way of looking at ourselves and looking for answers shifts. We begin to wake up to a different way of understanding our lives –  what are we creating, how we participate in the larger community of the universe, what is our personal path of love and what is our authentic expression. When we start asking these kinds of questions, looking in these directions for the answers to the questions that arise in our lives Moola Bandha is activated on an energetic level. When it’s activated on an energetic level it often spontaneously arises on a physical level as well.  The trick is to keep the state of mind as you re-engage the external world.

 A powerful way to support the physical practice of moola bandha is to shift our attention towards these universal considerations while we practice.  Our attention will work harmoniously with the physical contraction of the space between the anus and the genitals.  By working these two aspects together we activate a powerfully gentle form of transformation. How do we shift our attention while we are in our practice? Shouldn’t our attention during our practice be on our practice?  I encourage you to ask those questions when you are on your mat in your personal practice. There are as many approaches to this integration as there are people practicing yoga.  Some people meditate before practice. Some people chant before practice. Some pray.   Some extend the benefit of their practice to others or take a moment to envision that somehow as the practice transforms them  – that the world around them will transform into a peaceful world where beings are happy and free.  The possibilities are endless hence Patanjali’s statement about the limits.     The important thing is to consider incorporating these kinds of techniques into your practice on a physical level.  In actual practice an effective moola bandha will show up in a lightness – a freedom of movement,  a steadiness of the mind,  and a stability in the grounding of the posture. It may also show up as a different understanding of yourself in the practice and this I will leave you to discover on your own!

The Fruits of Yoga: The Experience of Connection

A yoga friend mentioned to me the other day that an experience that interferes with her yoga practice is competitiveness.  If a moment arises in class when she glances around and sees that others are doing a “deeper” version of the posture than she is doing, she feels competitive.  I have a feeling that this is very common, even if we sublimate it in some way to keep it manageable for ourselves.  I know in my own practice it took a very long time for me be able to celebrate the beauty in another’s posture, even if I might admire it, I didn’t necessarily celebrate it.  If my yoga friends celebrated a postural accomplishment that I achieved, I denied it’s value in my practice.  What my yoga friend is pointing to is not some egoic moral issue.  It’s that one of the most precious fruits of yoga practice is the experience of connection we can experience when we practice together –  even on Zoom, and that the very human tendency to compare ourselves to others interferes with that.

Some of you may have read that my wrist was smashed a few years ago.  It’s fully functional, but I’m taking my time reclaiming the fullness of some of the postures I did.  I do remember what they felt like…Urdhva Dhanurasana, for example, full wheel.  As I draw up the kinesthetic memory, I recognize now what a celebration of life it was that I was able to experience that full opening spaciousness of the front and back of the body. I had a dream after the wrist smash that I would do that posture again.  That inspires me.  But I go one step at a time.  The gift of that experience though, is that I can’t compete.  I can’t even compare.  The truth is, based on the degree of the smash, doing plank is a miracle.  Side plank also a miracle.  That I can participate in a live class  of the nature that I always practiced is a miracle.  With my previous accomplishments removed what remains in class is the sense of connection…unadulterated by the thoughts I had about the quality of my practice, good or bad.  

 A week ago I had my first experience of actually being deeply moved by a colleague’s accomplishment of physical grace.  Instead of “I should be able to do that” – well, that thought was not relevant – I had a spontaneous “that is so cool”.   And then, an interesting thing happened in my ability to see without comparison I could perceive my colleagues articulation of the posture differently, and as a result I began to understand that there was a small micro movement in my body which, at this moment in time, I wasn’t accessing.  Sometimes, becoming aware of something you aren’t doing becomes the doorway into doing.

I was told once that the Buddha said that the final frontier to overcome in the mind is comparison.  Think about it.  He has this…she has that…I have this…she is this, she is that, I am this.   It all points somehow to lack.  That one or the other of us is missing something or one of us has something that we should be grasping for.  This mode of thinking – it’s not bad or wrong – it just interferes with what is possible I ourselves and in our relationships.  Yoga promises that we will come to know ourselves as whole through practice.  If we know ourselves as whole, we know each other as whole and we experience the wholeness that is love itself.  This is an experience worth practicing for.

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