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: 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: 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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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!

My personal Upcoming Moon Months Sequence – for your ….imagination

I’ve been speaking a lot about designing your own sequences, and I thought it might be useful if I shared a sequence that I create for myself.  I do find they organically change a little from practice to practice – I’ll be inspired to tweak or shift something while in the practice- but unless I’m just having a day of goofing around, I always get on my yoga mat with a planned sequence that I’m working with for an extended period of time.  By performing it consistently in time, I learn was it does.  Physically I’m always aiming for balance in the musculoskeletal structure, and openness and support of the spine, which in the HYP is called the “yogi’s staff”.  To have a clear spine is essential to good health and good yoga.  That “clarity” can occur even with long standing spinal issues if you approach your practice with balance in mind.

I don’t suggest that you do this sequence, as it’s designed for me, but it’s to give you some ideas about what you can do – get you out of the box, so to speak.  These are all ordinary asana segments I’ve payed with for some time, but I’ve put them together just for me.  Of course, check with your doctor before trying anything here.

I practiced Bikram and Jivamukti for a long time.  In Bikram, you do every posture twice so it’s progressive.  A friend recently did a presentation on Tesla, the great inventor, and she shared that he loved the numbers 369, and attributed mystical important to them.  I thought, what if I  did each posture three times instead of Bikram’s two?  What evolved from that practice was that I began to do mini-segments 3 times.  It sounds goofy, but it worked – it built heat in the body, my postures deepened in a sustainable way, my spine felt light and free.  This has a dramatic opening because I have a hip issue I was born with, so I always work on my hips first.  The tension that accumulates there from living was a barrier to the rest of my practice, when I do it first, nothing hurts in my practice.  There is no sun salute because I’m recovering from a wrist injury and the chattaranga variations are a little remote at the moment. That means the transitions are too creative to articulate here.  That is part of the fun, it’s driving me into novel transitions.   Since I want to reclaim them, I work with plank and Up Dog.  Any questions please feel free to ask. 

Also, for teachers, I would never teach this in an open class.  Hence the understanding that I’m sharing a personal sequence.  I’ve practiced since 1993 and been a bodyworker…so I take freedoms with my own body that I would never take with other people’s bodies.

 I drop sections depending on how much time I have.

Yes , it’s in Sanskrit, mostly – with misspellings (oh to have more hours in a day to proofread).  Perhaps this is a good time to check out Light on Yoga by B.K.S Iyengar if you are unfamiliar with the names.  Well, or Goggle, but Mr. Iyengar was a true master, lifetime teacher, who studied with the root guru – Krishnamacharya.  So, please put the book on your reading list.

Remember this is for contemplation only!  Check with your doctor before attempting any exercise.

About the body the body  – In time

Hatha Yoga Pradipika Verses 103-104

“All of the all the processes of hatha and laya yoga are but the means to attain raja yoga. (samadhi) One who attains Raja yoga is victorious over time (death).” (Bihar edition and translation)

Perhaps when you were a child you experienced being measured. Sometimes parents make marks on the wall to emphasize how much a child has grown physically. As children we were measured physically, intellectually, emotionally… how we are growing? Then at some point the nature of that measuring starts to compare itself to an end point rather than the beginning point.  We mark a wrinkle (one step towards old age) A gray hair (another step towards old age). Perhaps we worry more about a physical symptom than we would have when our hair was colored rich and deep and our skin was rosy and clear.  One great blessing of combining the inner and outer yogas is that the processes are designed to liberate us from time. A mark of a well-done yoga practice is that decline is minimized and many times even reversed. One advantage of studying the tales of the great accomplished masters is that they completely transcend time. They choose when to leave the body behind. It’s a great teaching. There are many records  (Paramahansa Yogananda, Shri Brahamananda Saraswati ) of enlightened beings whose bodies did not compose after death but remained intact as their devotees prepared the funeral rites. When Shri Brahmananda Saraswati was cremated it is said that his ashes were pure and white as snow. He also regenerated his body and brain after a stroke through study and practice of Sanskrit (an energetically based yoga practice).

What does that mean for us as contemporary yogis? We don’t really know. We don’t really know what that means. Will we be immortal? Do we want to be immortal? Will we just stay lively? Will we live on as souls beyond the body?

What we do know is that well-done yoga is a rejuvenating practice.  It’s hormonal, it’s energetic, it’s the nervous system but essentially to tap into the field of consciousness is to tap into that place beyond time and that is infinite.  To keep the spiritual dimensions of the practice front and center. Serenity makes for a great facelift.

How do we make this more tangible? The usual choices for this kind of experiment are meditation or chanting. The point is your body will change through these practices.  And you can practice it and find out.  Just note that other lifestyle choices will mitigate your results.  Wise lifestyle choices will enhance them. 

For me the door which opened the understanding of this spirit body connection was yogic chanting. I knew it immediately even though I was not spiritually or athletically accomplished. I was living in New York and had much pain in my body — weight training, aerobics, desk work, crazy diet — so many possible culprits for the pain. After finding no remedy that was clear through the western medicine lens I started yoga to ease the pain.

I noticed almost immediately that if the class started with an Om  my body didn’t hurt as much during class. I thought it was a goofy thing and I made jokes about it. I figured I was imagining things, but then I found the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York. Chanting was central to that practice,  and I learned there that the ancient yogis understood that the body is made of sound. To those I spoke with and studied with there, when I made the statement that my practice was better if I Om’d first, it made perfect sense. I stayed with that practice for years and experienced many complex postures that I never imagined that I would do in part because my relationship with my body changed as I worked with this understanding that the body was made of sound. Things I could never imagine at 29 opened up for me as I moved towards and through a so called middle age. I am now 58 and I have less pain in my body than I did at age 29 – even in the wake of injury.

For this I rely on my yoga practice.

For the practitioner I believe that the bottom line of this is that we begin to consider that our bodies are not our masters — our hearts and our souls are. To embrace the spiritual aspects of the practice is not to deny the body but to nourish it at a deep level — beyond DNA, consciousness (which is experienced through practice) nourishes our very cells. You will be strengthened by it and it will cost you nothing to try.

About the Body – Thoughts on designing sequences for personal practice

I’ve waited years to talk about this!  It’s absolute freedom to me to be honest about designing your personal yoga practice.  You see, when you teach yoga you have to learn to construct a sequence which will be manageable for the largest number of people in the demographic that you are working with.  It’s a fabulous way to learn, taking group classes.  The support is amazing and often, especially in the early stage of practice – you can go further in association with others.  There comes a time in practice though…a time when it’s really time for you to discover your own personal connection with yoga and the truth that is being uncovered in you by the practice.  This can really only be done on your own.  No one else can feel what you feel.  No one else can really understand that revelation that you have.  It all travels through our personal filters.  And what, if not the actualization of our own yoking to the sacred, to the infinite, to the wise  – are our practices about?  It’s something to celebrate when we are called to develop our personal practice.

Generally I suggest that you start out considering two approaches to designing.  The first is to get on your mat and play – and in this I encourage you work with and without music.  Music will drive you in a particular direction, but it can also obscure what is going on inside at a deeper level.  It’s a complicated topic which we’ll address in future posts.  The key at this point is to be aware that it will have an impact in your practice.  The second is to decide on a goal and then work towards it.  For this second, more structured sadhana-like way to practice yoga asana – I suggest you start by picking a few basic key postures and doing them every day.   Overall, I design my sadhana moon month by moon month, and each month I will design a full sequence for myself. I decide the minimum postures I will do on a busy day.  Each day when I get on my mat it falls somewhere in the spectrum.  I always have a posture which is key for the moon month.  I try to tie it into my spiritual theme.  I always did that for the students and yes, I do it now just for myself.  I don’t hesitate to indulge the desires I have about my body, but I always try to give them a context.  For example, I gained weight during COVID (can you believe that? Lol) and I want to change that.  So my spiritual themes are around sadhana and the discipline contained therein.  That spiritual practice supports what I need to do for my body- which right now is to practice almost everyday.  We are integrated beings and there will always be a physical and spiritual coherence in our practice if we are open to it. 

Also, in this more structured component of developing practice it’s good to decide how you want to learn to understand your body.  Some people thrive with that anatomical memorization of parts.  Eh, not me.  For me, learning about the energy body was the doorway to learning about the muscles and bones and tendons and organs.  Once you decide on your approach, there are many resources online books and workshops.  If you are serious about yoga, I highly recommend, Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar.  He has sample sequences at the end of the book which are great learning devices. 

IF YOU FORCE NOTHING YOU WILL BE 100% SAFE.  FORCE NOTHING!

Remember to bring your wisdom with you on your mat.  In my years as a teacher I’ve seen people fall out of arm balances because they were drinking before class, people pushing postures until they snap, all kinds of things.  Most recently, my last employer – probably in his early seventies, felt fat from the COVID too.  He jumped immediately into doing 200 sit ups with a 25 pound weight on his head.  I said, “I would never let one of my students do that”.  He kept doing it.  Let’s put that in the “don’t try this at home” file.  The beauty of yoga is that you can gain without pain, and that the results of everything you do are cumulative  – a sustainable practice builds sustainable gains.  Moderation, balance and consistency are better than dramatic pushes followed by collapses into nothingness because you’ve overdone it. 

It is my deepest wish that this information will be useful to you, that you will grow in your life through your practice.  Keep practicing all is coming.

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About the Body – Alignment

Understanding Alignment — in the body.

“Just tell me what to do.”

 I hear that a lot as a yoga teacher.  Life can be overwhelming, and when we get to yoga, we just want to let.  That has its place in our practice.  But like eating chocolate cake It’s best used in a particular time and place – but not all the time.  It’s easy to get lost and miss what we come to the mat do to, whether it be physical or spiritual results we are aiming for.  The personal experience of life and yoga blossoms with individual alignment and connection to the effulgent source of being. This requires a bit of trailblazing to find our way through the wilderness of situations and challenges we encounter on and off the mat.  This call to authenticity and engagement led me to study the source texts in the original (rather than relying solely on expert commentary) and to apply them in the moment  – opening into the essential experience of living yoga. This includes physical body postural alignment.  Alignment always is an individual matter. While masters of yoga can pin point an alignment issue, I’ve found it isn’t complete if my own insight and understanding doesn’t emerge from it.

 There are very, very few alignment instructions in the texts (another reason why Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga” was such a breakthrough yoga classic). The texts discuss the shapes of a few postures in a general way (the Hatha Yoga Pradipika) and Patanjali advises that our posture should be stable and  joyful, or  steady and easeful (although the translations for that vary widely). So we are given a general principle ( think of it as equivalent to gravity) and then it’s up to us to find it in the world and decide what it means. The journey of self-discovery that yoga offers can elude us if we rely just on the teacher who offers their experience. To find our own understanding requires that we embrace the forms, as we as we have encountered them in class on YouTube, etc., and then let’s explore this mystical formula oin our own f steadiness and ease in our own bodies.

It requires attention, honesty with ourselves and a willingness to feel. You see, in the end, what a yoga practice always reveals (and this is supported in the texts) is that the level of change is in mind. This is a universal principle. If the mind is heavy or inert the body will be, or perhaps wobbliness arises during change in the life, etc. and you may find difficulty balancing.  So I invite you to open to discover your alignment through exploring balancing steadiness and ease and take note of what interferes with  the experience of steadiness and ease when you are on your mat.  Most of the people I’ve worked with find that it’s surprising what the underlying issues are, and the sense of freedom that emerges as a result of that work is well worth the effort.

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