The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Focus Wrap Up: Back to Basics February 2, 2011

Over the weekend I taught the final classes in our January Back to Basics focus. To complement our fine-tuning of alignment, review of three-part breathing and return to proper resting, these last sessions invited students to deepen their commitment to setting an intention.

Personally, I can’t imagine getting on the mat without exploring some kind of purpose for my practice.  To set an intention, I like to let the thoughts naturally flow through my mind while arriving, and see which one most strongly asks for my attention – it might even be a thought that’s been tapping me on the shoulder for a few days.  Maybe weeks!  Or longer!  Then I shape that thought into a dedication, affirmation or reflection.

Using the three-part Deergha Swaasam breath, I deepen my reflection by imagining filling with intention on the inhale, and simple resting with it on the exhale.  Later in my set, during the internal focus and natural surrender of seated forward folds, I inhale to fill with intention, and exhale to surrender (dissolve and let go of) any obstacles (distractions, old stories, self-imposed limitations) that might stand in the way of realizing my intention.  And I reconnect with my intention before settling into Yoga Nidra – a process of deep relaxation, between a state of sleep and consciousness.

Although I’ve been shying away from the word “resolution” this new year, I will say that having a Sankalpa (a firm, prayerful, resolved intention) during my time on the mat makes a huge difference in my practice, my day and my life. Different traditions approach Sankalpa with unique perspectives – for example, setting a Sankalpa during Yoga Nidra so this process of yogic sleep helps us realize that intention; belief that Sankalpa can erase negative Samskara (imprints on or patterns in our lives); or using Pratipaksha Bhavana (replacement of negative thoughts with positive) to create a resolution.

There’s that word again!  Resolution.

I can’t escape it – if I am going to reflect deeply on intention, I must have resolve.  So I’ll try to ease up on my anti-resolution attitude!  Your encouragement is always helpful; I’m not the only teacher around here.

I hope you’ve found something useful during this Back to Basics month of reviewing and fine tuning Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa practice.  Looking forward to starting a 9-month look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Eight Limbs beginning in February!

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

P.S. Remember, the fine-tuning tips for Asana and Pranayama that I’ve taught over the past month can be found on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.  Enjoy!

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Let Your Heart Bloom Open January 13, 2010

Hunched and hidden hearts, don’t let the cold weather shut you down!

Our Bi-Monthly Focus for January/February yoga classes is HEART.  For the 1st month, we’ll focus on the Anatomy & Physiology of opening the heart center despite our tendency to scrunch up during the winter.  For the 2nd month, we’ll explore and perhaps counteract the emotional/psychological consequences of that classic winter shut-down.

Despite your tendency to shrug forward against the bitter cold, let your heart bloom open.  How?  Start by wearing a warm hat and scarf!  Then, take a brisk walk to your closest yoga class and give the following four heart-opening tips a try.

TAKE IT FROM THE TOP

To have an open heart, one must first have a good head on his or her shoulders.  What I mean is, you must float your head above your neck so your ears hover directly over your shoulders (vs. in front of the shoulders due to a jutting or downward-tilting chin).  Think of the Alexander Technique direction to “free the neck” then allow the crown of the head to extend out of and up from the spine.

The crown of the head is that flat-ish spot in the center-top of the skull where you would place your King or Queen crown so it doesn’t fall off.  This is different from where you would place your tiara (toward the hairline) or a yarmulke (toward the back of the skull) – although I always suspected that the Jewish yarmulke (pronounced “yamaka”) plays the same role as any prayerful head wrap, protecting the 7th chakra energy and also maintaining humility; so I feel a little confused why we place it so far back on the head.

Anyway…

Anatomically, the crown of the head is the point where your spine would pop out if it continued through the top of your skull. Any profile in a basic anatomy book can illustrate this.

To begin our heart-opening process, please stand in Tadaasana (Mountain Pose) with your arms resting at your sides.  Begin your deep three-part breath (aka Deergha Swaasam, described on the Tips-n-Tools page), remembering to let each exhale be long and thorough, all the way down and out of the lower lobes of the lungs and belly, and your inhales strong and complete, through the rib cage and up to the collar-bone.

Now, inhale and reach the crown of the head toward the sky, hovering your ears over your shoulders.  Maintaining that alignment, relax on the exhale.

BAD TO THE BONE

Gliding our way down the cervical spine, we then broaden the collar-bone to create space for the upper lobes of the lungs and top ribs.

To do this, stand in Tadaasana with arms resting down, and press your palms into the sides of the thighs.  Line up your middle finger with the seam of your pants – or where that seam would be if you had one on your yoga capris.

Inhale and continue to press the palms flat.  On the exhale, curl open the upper arms.  Biceps curl out and away from the ribs while triceps tuck under and toward the side body.  As you exhale thoroughly to the belly, the shoulders and collar-bone will naturally broaden and you will feel like a proud yoga soldier.

FILL UP THE BARREL

Next, we have to create space for the heart’s doors to open wide.  They are swinging doors and like the rib cage, they need room to move forward, sideways, backward, all around.

I like to describe the rib cage as a big barrel, imagining myself actually filling up a big cavernous barrel as I breathe through the Deergha Swaasam.  The lungs also expand forward, sideways and backward.  Plus, they are longer than most realize – beginning as low as the upper abdomen, expanding through the ribs and reaching up to the collar-bone.

So let’s fill up the barrel!  Inhale into the belly, ribs then collar-bone.  Hold the breath in the rib cage and explore the expansiveness surrounding your precious little heart.  Then exhale, maintaining that expansiveness, particularly in the side body.

THAT SINKING FEELING

Fourth and finally, we return to the most simple instruction for opening the heart.

Inhale and reach the crown of the head toward the sky.  On the exhale, move the shoulder blades together then down the back. With the head high, the collar-bone wide and the side body long, the blades easefully sink into place.

BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE…

…but you don’t have to hunch the winter away.  Hold your warmly capped head high, wrap that scarf around your perfectly aligned neck and follow your heart down the street.

See you in class.  OM Shanti.

(Jan/Feb Heart Focus instructions are archived on the Tips-n-Tools page.)