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Why I Spend So Much Time on Alignment February 12, 2010

…only true Silence is eternal speech, the one word om (inner sound), the Heart-to-Heart talk.  Silence is the true advice.  – Swami Satyeswarananda Giri

As many of you know, I try to guide an internal and meditative practice when teaching yoga classes.  Paradoxically, I can talk your yogic ear off with detailed alignment instructions.  I talk about safety, mobility and longevity a lot.  And I use the words “engage,” “fine-tune,” “become aware” and “alignment principles” a lot.  Take our January/February Bi-Monthly Focus for example – who needs four separate directions for opening the HEART?

Well, I do.

I tend to shut down in my heart center. My shoulders round forward, my ribs cave inward, my lungs shrink upward and my poor little heart hides behind it all.  And not just in the winter.  Due to multiple neck and shoulder injuries from car accidents, falls and other traumas over the decades, this area of my body can be a little vulnerable.  Yet without fail, practicing yoga’s alignment principles helps my heart find its way back to a balanced center.

This is one reason I spend so much time instructing alignment in our yoga classes!

In addition, for me, there is a connection between physically caving in and emotionally shutting down.  It’s as if the physical distortion causes a psychological darkness – or vice versa.  (Check out the February issue of Natural Health’s article on Anusara Yoga’s approach to the heart and well-being).  So tending to an open heart center is key for this gal.

My favorite teacher for heart-area alignment is Megan Davis, who passed on her knowledge of engaging the intercostal muscles to control the movement of my rib cage and shoulder blades.  She recommended moving the intercostals backward, around the sides of the ribs, then down to “relax the shoulders” by releasing the shoulder blades toward each other and down the back.  That was a true “Ah-ha” moment.  For years, I’d been “relaxing my shoulders” by forcing my shoulder joints down and back.  Utilizing Megan’s tips, I erased a long-term neck ache and was finally able to expand my heart wide!

My second “Ah-ha” moment for the heart center was with Dr. Steven Weiss – chiropractor, yoga teacher and founder of Align by Design experiential Anatomy and Physiology workshop.  The tip he shared was to broaden the collar-bone by curling open the upper arms.  Lining up my middle finger with seam of my pants, he moved my biceps out and back and my triceps under and in.  What an amazing lift and expansion in my chest!

Thanks to these fine-tuned adjustments, my Pranayama practice is stronger (and my asthma symptoms weaker), my neck is free (and therefore free of pain), my shoulder joints move easefully (helping to rehab a rotator cuff injury) and my heart center is open (lifting my spirit, as well).

Aside from heart-center issues, I was also plagued by hip and knee injuries. I used to lock my knees when standing still or twist them when walking on uneven surfaces (snow, rocks, etc).  The inside and back of my knee would swell and ache horribly.  Frequently after yoga class, I would experience that same swelling and ache.

Finally, I took a private session with Andrea Franchini – a dancer as well as a yoga teacher – who completely transformed my knee and hip health.  In poses like Tadaasana and Tree, she noticed that I tended to hyper-extend my knee, causing a “blow out” in the tissue behind the cap.  In poses like Goddess or Warrior, she noticed that I would twist from my ankle and knee to open the hip, rather than – duh – opening the hip!  Thus my positive habits of engaging the quadriceps to safely straighten the leg and utilizing the hip’s ball-socket joint correctly were born.  Knock on wood – I have not blown out my knee since that session with Andrea.

Not only did proper use of the hip-joint facilitate knee mobility, it also eased a long-term and recurring pain in my right hip. (I know what you’re thinking – how did this girl become so injured?  That’s another story and an even longer blog for another time, believe me.  Suffice it to say, many of my injuries and their causes are far behind me.  Thank goodness.)

One of my favorite Asana instructions is “Zip up the belly.” Dancer and yoga teacher Leah Kalinosky describes a “zipping up” from the pubic bone to the belly button.  Add to that Dr. Weiss’s instruction to also zip down and in from the sternum to the belly button.  Distinct from sucking in the belly, this subtle lifting and tucking beneath the ribs liberates my hips to float freely over my legs.  So many teachers, so little time.  I could write a book about the many “Ah-ha” moments I’ve experienced in yoga classes thanks to generations of wisdom passed down.

Getting back to the notion of silence, and meditative yoga practices…

Yoga’s eight limbs are designed to progressively prepare the self for Samadhi, or enlightenment.  The limbs are in order for a reason – without becoming aware of ethical conduct through the Yama and Niyama in limbs one and two, without removing physical distraction through Asana in the 3rd limb, and so on, we cannot reach the level of concentration and meditation necessary to reach the bliss of the 8th limb, Samadhi.  And so, by engaging proper alignment during Asana, I silence the body.  Once the physical noise is quieted, I can move on to deepening practices of Pranayama, Pratyahara, and so on.

During his Align by Design workshop, Dr. Weiss pointed out two concepts from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that promote proper alignment during Asana practice. He opened the workshop by writing “Heyam Dukham Anagatam” on the board.  “The pains yet to come can be and are to be prevented.”  Through proper alignment, we prevent injury and enhance well-being.  He also pointed out that, since the Yama and Niyama intentionally precede Asana, and non-violence is part of that ethical code, it would be unethical for a yogi to stress themselves into a pose.  Proper alignment erases such strain and honors Ahimsa.

A last word about my role, as instructor, in adjusting and fine-tuning Asana.

When I teach, I am not trying to prove that I know more than a student.  I believe each person contains the wisdom of Asana in his/her body.  Therefore my role is to remind students of what they already know (thanks to Seane Corn for reminding me of that during a recent workshop!).  Verbal cues and physical adjustments are not corrections – rather, they are guidance for students to tap into what’s within their bodies.  Honestly, my compulsion to “fine-tune” Asana comes from a yearning to share with others what has healed my body during my 16 years of yoga practice.  Not to mention my deep longing to end suffering and prevent the pains yet to come!  Please!

To make up for my alignment gab, I promise to end every class with a luxurious period of silence during Yoga Nidra!

May you find the wisdom of alignment, live free of suffering and cultivate the silence within.  OMmmmmmmmm.

The tips, tools and “Ah-ha” moments from so many wise and resourceful teachers are what inspired me to take my teacher training.  I have Dr. Weiss (www.alignbydesignyoga.com) and Alexander Technique expert Sumi Komo (www.alexandermovingarts) to thank for cohesively connecting Megan’s, Andrea’s and Leah’s specific adjustments.  For my version of alignment instructions in Tadaasana, please visit the Tips-n-Tools page and scroll to “Alignment Principles in Tadaasana.”

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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.)

 

Firm and Pleasant November 12, 2009

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you…while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  – John Muir

This morning a group of students and staff from Past Tense Studio (see “Services” page) went for a Yoga and Meditation Hike in Rock Creek Park.  We first walked chattily to our starting point – a bridge crossing a particularly rocky and rumbling section of the creek – then settled into our practice.

It’s not hard to do Asana in plain sight of the public eye when surrounded by the Autumn beauty of Rock Creek – a true refuge where one can completely forget the rush and trash of city life.  We opened our journey in a strong and engaged Tadaasana (see instructions below), breathing the deep three-part Deergha Swaasam breath (see “Tips-n-Tools,” Sept/Oct focus), and inviting the mind to soften into the neutral space of the present moment.

Flowing through our Sun Salutations without yoga mats, in jeans instead of yoga pants and with sneakers instead of bare feet, I felt a surprising authenticity.  Simple connections – face raised toward the warm fall sunlight, ears filled with the sound of rushing water, bare hands pressed into the cool concrete bridge – forged a humble oneness of human and nature.

For our hike, we explored our senses, one-by-one (one of my favorite styles of meditation, as many know!).  After exploring sound (crunching leaves underfoot and weepy children passing by), smell (wet earth as well as runners’ cologne), taste (indeed, I could taste fresh air) and touch/feeling (limbs swinging freely, bodies heating on the uphill climb), we paused at a peak of the trail to transition to the sense of seeing.

Taking advantage of the elevation and view, we practiced Netra Vyayamam (see instructions below), circling our open eyes around the periphery of the sockets, taking in the closest details and stretching our gaze to far off vistas.  As we walked back to the bridge, we gradually activated and enlivened each sense, reaching our starting point in full sensory awareness.  To close, we stood again in a firm Mountain Pose, and allowed the senses to soften back to neutral, releasing all effort, resting in the here and now.

Sounds like a lot of work for a walk in the woods, eh?

This balance of effort and ease is the essence of yogic living.  In the Yama and Niyama – yoga’s first two limbs – it is the skilled practice of ethical living while exercising compassion and love for our humanness.  In Pranayama, it is the healthful benefits of deliberate breathing; in Yoga Nidra, it is a conscious restfulness; in Dharana, it is concentration toward the meditative state of Dhyana.

And in Asana, it is the engaging of structure to find stillness in a pose.

In the text “Raja-Yoga,” Swami Vivekananda translates Sutra 2:46 as, “Posture is that which is firm and pleasant.”  For the months of November and December, our yoga classes, meditations and field trips (see “Services” page to join us!) will explore this fusion of effort and ease…a fusion that inevitably leads to deep, profound rest…a rest that we all need during the holiday craze.  Visiting, shopping, eating.  Family time, financial stress, physical imbalance.

Read below for tips to reach restfulness.  Try (just try) to let go of pushing, straining and reaching.  Engage as much as possible, breath the deep three-part breath, fine-tune, then surrender into stillness.

Let’s take refuge in yoga.

shavasana-3

Savaasana is the ultimate resting pose!

BI-MONTHLY FOCUS: November/December – Rest

“When you have succeeded in controlling the body and keeping it firm, your practice will be steady…  This is the only real rest you can give to the body.”  – Swami Vivekananda, “Raja-Yoga,” Sutra 2:46

Here are two exercises for practicing the balance of effort and ease, leading to rest.  Enjoy!

TADAASANA – MOUNTAIN POSE

Tadaasana is a standing pose and a foundational posture for other Asana or yoga movements.  One can apply Tadaasana’s principles of alignment to any pose.

  • To engage Tadaasana, stand tall with the arms by the sides.  Scan the body from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head.
  • Stand with the feet parallel and a little bit apart (aligned with hip bones).
  • If the knees are locked, unlock them; allow them to relax.
  • Tighten the quadriceps – the long muscle in the front of the thighs.  The knee-caps will raise, safely straightening the legs.
  • Bring the awareness to the hips, pelvis and “sit bones” (aka ischium – the two bones at the base of the buttocks).
  • Imagine the sit bones reaching down the backs of the legs toward the heels; allow the hips and pelvis to float above the legs.
  • Feel the grounded sensation in the lower half of your Mountain Pose.
  • Bring the awareness to the spine.
  • Inhale a deep three-part breath from the tailbone, through the backs of the ribs, up to the shoulder blades.
  • Exhale, release the shoulder blades toward each other and down the back.
  • Inhale, breathe into the front, sides and backs of the ribs, filling the lungs like a barrel.
  • Exhale, open and extend through the sides of the ribs.
  • On the next inhale, reach the crown of the head to the sky.
  • Exhale, close the eyes, breathe, find stillness.
  • Rest.

NETRA VYAYAMAM – EYE MOVEMENTS

Netra Vyayamam tone the optic nerve and stretch the eye muscles.  The exercises can be practiced to rest the eyes from staring at computer screens, studying, driving and so on.  When practiced outdoors, they allow the depth of focus to stretch.  Try the palming described at the very end to relieve eye strain anytime.

  • Sit (or stand in Tadaasana) with the spine long and the crown of the head reaching toward the sky.
  • Close the eyes and breathe deeply in three parts.
  • Gently open the eyes and bring the gaze to the top of the vision.
  • Begin circling the clockwise, exploring the edge of the eye socket, stretching without straining.
  • Inhale as the eyes circle from bottom to top; exhale from top to bottom.
  • After three slow, fluid repetitions, return to the top of the vision.
  • Close the eyes, center them and relax.
  • Repeat circling counter-clockwise.
  • If outdoors, explore the range of vision, from the closest objects to the farthest vistas.
  • After completing three repetitions in each direction, keep the eyes closed, and rub the palms together at the heart center.
  • Generate heat in the palms from the friction.
  • Cup the palms over the eyes and allow them to drink in the darkness and warmth.
  • Rest.
  • As the heat begins to dissipate, gently sweep the fingertips across the eyelids.
  • Gradually open the eyes.
  • Rest some more.

Please visit the “Tips-n-Tools” page for an archive of these instructions.