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.

Yoga, Freedom and Moving into Sovereignty

The focus this moon month in the newsletter is freedom or in Sanskrit, Mukti.  Mukti translates as “liberation”,  freedom, and it’s important to understand that freedom in the sense of yoga is different than freedom in of our day-to-day life – although they are related. We may think that having tons of money would be freedom or rebelling against social conventions would be freedom. Freedom is not inherent in those experiences.  Ask anyone who has very large amounts of money or who has lived in the counterculture for a long time and in their story you will hear of the oppressions that still remain.  In yoga  freedom is something that we develop inside ourselves as we cease identifying with the fluctuations (vritti’s) of our mind. That’s the  second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The fluctuations of our mind frequently take the form of how we think of ourselves, how we think of others and how we think of the world we live in. These mental constructs can become rigid and block our ability to be open and spacious and, well, liberated.  The freedom of the yogi comes in the form of an inner sovereignty which allows us to become the masters of our own minds and to use that freedom to choose the path of love over and over again.

Yoga is a discipline that leads to freedom The practices of yoga involve experiencing certain kinds of restraint and under those conditions finding the freedom there. When the  restraint is lifted you have a different understanding of who you are. Restraint comes in the form of tying yourself in a knot in an awkward posture and remaining peaceful.  Restraint can mean  being willing to suspend our immediate desires in order to allow a higher state of wisdom consciousness to guide our actions.

When we tie ourselves in a knot in a posture we stir up the deep resistances we have to living.  The knots are knots within our consciousness and so the goal is that to breathe, to be present to what’s happening and not fight with it. Consider this first level of freedom one that you could find contentment even when circumstances around you are not to your liking.  That’s a tremendous amount of freedom. Sometimes for whatever reason it’s not the best idea to change a circumstance. Even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s better to be strong. This capacity is honed in the practice of asana.  Accept the limitation, breathe be still and allow your inner guidance to direct you step by step to moving beyond the limitation into a deeper expression of the posture.

This kind of yoga training reveals discernment – the capacity to understand if our impulses are coming from our authentic heart desires or our desire to control. It’s a powerful means of developing aligned autonomous inspired choice making. Sovereignty. It is a gift of the yoga practice born of moment by moment alignment with self and that is the freedom. Rather than having others dictate who we are or who we become  or what actions we take in our lives we are free to take action in alignment with our highest best interest.  Yoga will take us to a healthy and beautiful body of all different kinds of shapes and sizes but this is the heart of the yoga  – this sovereignty and the freedom that emerges through practice.

Ha—tha—-Yo—ga

“….the Kula Arnava Tantra states [that the] the ultimate purpose of Hatha-Yoga, which is God-realization, or enlightenment, here and now, in a divinized immortal body.  This is often expressed as the state of balance or harmony (samarasa) in the body, when ordinarily diffuse life energy is stabilized in the central channel.  This idea is present in the term hatha yoga itself, which is esoterically explained as the union (yoga) between “sun” and “moon” the conjunction of the two great dynamic principles of aspects of the body-mind. “  Georg Feurstein, commenting on the Kula-Arnava Tantra, in the Yoga Tradition (1998)

This sums it up!!

Here are many words which describe the potential of a yoga practice, all of which reflect the culture and time in which they were said.  In an age of skepticism (now), few are enticed to the mat for something like “God-realization”.  What does that even mean?  “Divinized immortal body”.  We have bionics, why do all the work of hatha yoga?  So, let’s step back from the words of the Georg, and uncover the essence of this.  The yogi attains a magnificent state through the alchemical combining of two opposites into one presence in which opposition ceases entirely. Let’s consider that the opposition never really existed.  The body and mind were always one, the left and the right were always two parts of one body, but some how we experience ourselves as fragmented.  When we cease to swing from one polarity to another, we will function optimally.  In any moment, to function optimally would be to outperform any previous and similar circumstance.  In other words, evolution.    When we cultivate honoring balance and harmony on and off the mat, the best aspects of ourselves will shine through our physical form:  emotional and relational depth, creativity, wisdom and innovation of all kinds.  Whatever our field of endeavor, yoga practice with a mind towards balance and harmony expands what we are capable of. 

We’ve been in Shelter in Place for 15 weeks now.  In the months before the shutdown, I’d left a long term, very exhausting job, and unexpectedly found myself teaching yoga again.  I was a substitute teacher.  I taught enthusiastically through the holidays, stacking classes with abandon, sure that when the holidays were over the intense need for coverage would diminish.  It did not.  My base camp was a tiny yoga studio in the Inner Richmond, San Francisco.  Sometime in February people began to get sick.  Teachers, students, front desk staff one by one being taken mysteriously ill.  The studio ran out of substitute teachers and I was working my ass off.  I was chugging along thinking everything was fine, I was rising to the occasion!  I’d lost my center.  On March 17, 2020 when Marin Country went into Shelter in place, I took to my bed, tired beyond having the energy to question or fear what was happening.  I never got sick.  I was exhausted. 

It’s 15 weeks since the shutdown.  Today, I made a new recipe for lunch.  Everything was calm –  the bounty of colors and smells as I tossed the ingredients one by one into the pan drew me deep into the present moment.   I realized that I was in balance for the first time in a long time.  It took 15 weeks of solitude, nurturing and yoga for me to return to my center.  It amazes me that it took that long.  Compared to many modern American lives, my life is pretty balanced.  Today was a day of focus, accomplishment, giving and nurturing.   The point is, when we go out of balance, the rebalancing may call for  some awareness, some presence and some time.

What do I notice in this new state of balance? After all, each time we rebalance we land in a different place.   I’m aware.  Aware of how I am standing, alert to the smells, sounds, sights and tastes of the world around me.  It’s easy for me to respond to the neighbor who asks for a little of my time.  Laughing comes easier, and so does hope.

An imbalance can sneak up on us.  First, we are doing a little more of one thing and then another.  Before you know it, we’ve lost our center.  While a “divinized immortal body” may seem remote to us, the fragility that arises when we become out of balance is familiar to just about everyone.  When we are in balance, we are strong and resilient.    Balanced here refers to resting our attention, awareness and presence inside of ourselves, rather than having our attention pulled by ten thousand things.   Or in the language of Mr. Feuerstein, “ordinarily diffuse life energy is stabilized in the central channel.”  Classically this is done in meditation, but our waking lives are reflections of those inner energies, and the inner energies are reflections of our waking lives. When we are centered our attention is broad enough to hold the awareness of all the facets of our lives while we stay stably rooted in our own awareness.   

It’s a superpower, to choose where and when to give your attention to something, and to choose to stay focused when the guy next door is using his chain saw.  It’s a superpower to cultivate the skill of harmonizing the body and staying well.  It’s a superpower to not be buffeted by the fluctuations of the world around us.

There are many approaches to harmonizing the body  and reclaiming our center in the yoga practices.  What I consider the most useful, is to  just begin with the structure of a given posture.  The weight balanced between both feet. This weight distribution will, in turn balance our channels, right and left, or in classical practice the sun and the moon.  If we practice just this, with consistency and detachment the sense of fragmentation dissolves as our central channels are awakened.  We begin the movement towards a deeper level of potential and fulfillment.

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