UPDATED TUESDAY, 25 JANUARY, 2011
ASANA: ALIGNMENT PRINCIPLES IN TADAASANA
We begin by standing…
1. The Base of the Mountain – Feet to Hips
- Bring the awareness to the feet. They are a little bit apart (technically, lined up beneath the hip bones) and parallel. Lift the toes off the mat. Feel all four corners of the feet – big toe and little toe mounds plus inner and outer heel corners – grounding into the mat. Lower the toes.
- Bring the awareness to the lower legs. Energetically move the inside of the lower legs – from ankles to knees – together.
- Bring the awareness to the knees. If they are locked, unlock them. You might even bend the knees a bit to keep the knee joints from locking.
- Bring the awareness to the quadriceps. Engage or tighten the quadriceps, consequently lifting the knee caps and safely straightening the legs.
- Bring the awareness to the upper legs. Energetically move the inside of the thighs apart, beginning to create space in the hip and pelvis area.
- Bring the awareness to the sit bones. The two bones at the base of the buttocks that we sit on are called the ischium or sit bones. Imagine them reaching down the backs of the legs to the heels, continuing to open the hip and pelvis area.
- Close the eyes. Feel the stability, support and balance in the base of your mountain.
2. The Middle of the Mountain – Lower Torso
- Bring the awareness to the mid-line, between the pubic bone and the belly button. Without sucking in, “zip up the belly” or lift up from the pubic bone to the belly button.
- Bring the awareness between the lower sternum (where the lowest ribs meet) and the belly button. “Zip” down and in, again without sucking in the abdomen.
- Close the eyes and sense the lift and solidness in the trunk of your mountain.
3. The Crest of the Mountain – Ribs to Crown
- Bring the awareness to the neck. Free the neck – whatever that means to you. It might mean relaxing the neck muscles. Releasing the jaw. Releasing the tongue to the bottom of the jaw. Allowing the skull to sink back over the shoulders. Experiment with the sensation of freeing the neck.
- Bring the awareness to the crown of the head (center of the top of the skull). Inhale and lift the crown of the head toward the sky, lengthening the neck. Exhale and maintain the length.
- Bring the awareness to the collar bone. Inhale and press the palms of the hands into the sides of the thighs, lining up the middle finger with the seam of the pants. On the exhale, broaden the collar bone by externally rotating the very tops of the arms – biceps open out and back, triceps curl under and in.
- Bring the awareness to the ribs. Inhale and fill the lungs, expanding the ribs forward, sideways and back. On the exhale, maintain the length in the side body.
- Bring the awareness to the shoulder blades. Inhale and lift the crown of the head to the sky and expand the ribs. On the exhale, release the shoulder blades together and down the back by moving the intercostal muscles (they wrap around the sides of the ribs and connect to the scapula) around and back.
- Close the eyes and feel the expansion of your heart, the length and openness along your entire structure, the freedom in your limbs, the silence within the body.
ASANA: SHOULDER AND HIP ALIGNMENT – QUICKIES
Two body areas that are frequently challenged in yoga and all physical health are the SHOULDERS (affecting the NECK, RIBS, LUNGS, HEART) and HIPS (affecting the HIP FLEXORS, PELVIS, LOWER SPINE).
So whether practicing yoga or moving through life in exercise, work or play, CONSIDER THESE EASEFUL TIPS:
- Inhale deeply into your ribs, expanding them forward, sideways and backward. Your ribs and lungs extend from the front to the back of the body, like a barrel. Fill up the barrel!
- As you exhale, utilizing the mobility of the intercostal muscles between/around the ribs, release the shoulder blades together and down the back. Allow the heart to bloom open.
- Free the neck. What does that mean to you? It might mean that you exhale the tension from the base of your skull…or release the tongue from pressing against the roof of your mouth…or relax the jaw…or allow the head to float atop the neck.
- Find your hip flexors by lifting your bent knee upward. Always bend from this hinge instead of your abdomen, consequently protecting your lower back from stress and injury.
- When turning the leg/foot inward or outward, originate the motion in that big ol’ ball socket joint, the hip, consequently protecting your knee/ankle from stress and injury.
- When stepping forward from Downward Facing Dog to a Lunge, hinge the hips AND upper body/shoulders forward. This allows the foot to float toward the hands more easily. A teacher once said, “You can’t step the foot forward without moving the whole body with it!” Just like walking!
ASANA: FOUR HEART-OPENING TIPS FOR THE NECK, COLLAR BONE, RIB AND SHOULDER AREA
1. TAKE IT FROM THE TOP
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.
To begin our heart-opening process, please stand in Tadaasana (Mountain Pose – see simplified instructions in the November/December Bi-Monthly Focus section below) with your arms resting at your sides. Begin your deep three-part breath (aka Deergha Swaasam, described in the September/October Bi-Monthly Focus section below), 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.
2. BAD TO THE BONE
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 middle of the thigh’s side.
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.
3. FILL UP THE BARREL
Next, we create space for the heart’s doors to open wide. 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.
Inhale into the belly, ribs then collar-bone. Hold the breath in the rib cage and explore the expansiveness surrounding your heart area. Then exhale, maintaining that expansiveness, particularly in the side body.
4. 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.
PRANAYAMA: BASIC PRACTICES
Note: Inspirational references for this Bi-Monthly Focus included: “The Breath of Life” by Swami Satchidananda; “Science of Breath” by Swami Rama, Dr. Rudolph Ballentine, and Dr. Alan Hymes; and “Body, Mind, and Sport” by Dr. John Douillard.
A BIT OF PRANAYAMA A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY!
- Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position or on a chair with feet flat on the floor, hands on the knees.
- Elongate the spine to create space for the breath to fill the torso.
- Inhale and exhale through the nose, unless otherwise instructed.
- The lungs are long and thick, like a barrel inside of the torso. Fill up the barrel!
Pump up your immune system! This deeply calming three-part breath can be practiced anytime, anywhere.
- Begin with a complete exhale, all the way down to the lower lungs, around the belly. Contract the belly to completely empty the torso of air.
- Begin your inhale at the lower lungs, allowing the belly to relax outward.
- Continue inhaling into the middle lungs, expanding the rib cage forward, along the sides and into the back.
- Top off your inhale at the collar bone.
- Exhale, releasing the air from the collar bone, emptying the rib cage, and then contracting and emptying the belly.
- Continue for three to five minutes then return to normal breathing.
- You might reduce the length as you work it into Naadi Suddhi, described further on.
This rapid, naval-pumping breath is cleansing and energizing. Excellent when sleepiness hinders daytime activities. (For example, driving long distances after playing music all night; or preparing for an at-bat or swim meet when feeling sluggish.)
- To find the correct area to activate for this rapid, navel-pumping breath, place the palm of the hand over the belly button, and stretch the thumb upward, toward the lower sternum, where the ribs meet.
- It is important to sit upright, open the heart and isolate movement to the belly.
- To practice before your first round, relax the belly while inhaling just into the lower lungs, then exhale sharply while contracting the belly inward. Some people compare this forceful exhale to a bellows, to the contraction we feel when laughing heartily (try it!) or to blowing out a candle with your nose.
- Your inhale will follow naturally, filling up the belly as it relaxes outward.
- To prepare for your first round, inhale a deep three-part breath, exhale all the way down and out of the belly, inhale just into the belly, then sharply exhale to begin.
- Find your own rhythm and pace and continue with the sharp exhales and natural inhales for 15-20 cycles. Repeat for three rounds.
- After each round, exhale completely, inhale a deep three-part breath, then let the exhale slowly seep out. Return to normal breathing.
- If the practice becomes challenging during your rounds, focus on the forceful exhale, and let the inhale become more and more relaxed and passive.
- As your practice advances, increase up to five rounds, with up to 100 cycles per round.
- This is a complex practice. Please consult the texts listed above or e-mail me at email@example.com with any questions.
Ahhh. Use for balance during stressful times or the change of the seasons. (If you can’t find the privacy for the Vishnu Mudra hand position, try relaxed belly or “baby” breathing for instant calm.)
- Raise the right arm and place the palm in front of the face; make a loose fist; release the thumb, pinky and ring finger into Vishnu Mudra, a hand position.
- Inhale into both nostrils.
- Plug the right nostril w/ the thumb and exhale through the left nostril; keep the thumb where it is and inhale through the left nostril.
- Now plug the left nostril with the fingers and exhale through the right nostril; keep the fingers where they are and inhale through the right nostril.
- Switch and plug the right nostril; exhale/inhale through the left.
- Switch and plug the left nostril; exhale/inhale through the right.
- As you become comfortable with the pattern of exhale/inhale/switch/exhale/inhale/switch/etc, begin to lengthen the breath to deep three-part breathing (into belly, ribs, collar bone; out of collar bone, ribs, belly).
- After about three minutes, and after finishing an exhale on the right side, relax the right hand to the knee and return to normal breathing.
CAT/COW WITH DEERGHA SWAASAM
Typically, when we move through Cat/Cow, we originate the movement in the back and belly (i.e. Exhale/Cat = raise the back; Inhale/Cow = drop the belly). To enhance the Pranayama benefits and for a meditative experience, try moving the body in a wavelike motion along the spine, following the movement of Deerga Swaasam breathing.
- Begin with a deep, three-part inhale in table position.
- Exhale into Cat, first dropping the head, then raising the back, then tucking the tailbone (breath empties from collar bone, ribs, then belly).
- Inhale into Cow, raising the tailbone, dropping the ribs, then raising the head (breath fills into belly, ribs, then collar bone).
- Cycle through at least six repetitions, finally exhaling in table, then returning to normal breathing.
RAJA: HOLLY’S FOUR FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE
1 – A PROMISE
Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.” We’ve probably experienced this at the end of a luscious Asana and Pranayama class! That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence. So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: using yoga, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.
2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL
Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana class to restrain disturbances of my mind. If I sneak forward to Book Two, I find the remedy. Sutra 2.33 says, “Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam” or “When disturbed by negative thoughts, contrary thoughts should be employed.” There are days when I find myself repeating “Pratipaksha Bhavana!” like a mantra, in order to snap out of negativity. My Uncle Bill (recently departed and revered in my April “Oh Death” post) was the king of replacing negative with positive. I remember one conversation in particular. I was feeling hopeless and believed I’d made too many mistakes during my early adult life to ever repair the damage and pursue my dreams. I’d been swimming in self-pity and doubt for a while. As I defended my despair, Uncle Bill interrupted – “Well, Holly,” he said with his soothing Tennessee accent and churchgoers’ faith, “I believe you sort of lived your life backwards – when you were younger, you made all of your mistakes and somehow survived all of your trials. Now you get to move forward based on what you’ve learned and live a better life!” And you know what? Since learning to replace negativity with positive or constructive thoughts, many of my dreams and intentions have been realized! Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!
3 – THE FOUR LOCKS AND KEYS
To further pacify the citta (mind), we backtrack to Book One. Sutra 1.33 says, “Maitri Karuna Muditopeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bavanatas Citta Prasadanam.” The many lengthy translations and commentaries on this aphorism offer an overall belief that there are four locks in our own minds and in the character of other people: happy, unhappy, virtuous and non-virtuous. To confront these attitudes – whether ours or others’ – Patanjali suggests: “Befriend the happy; have compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.” To properly discuss this Sutra would take many blog entries. I refer you to the Yoga Journal articles and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait book cited above for my inspirations to have mercy toward unhappy mindsets (i.e. being compassionate with myself when feeling low) and to compassionately detach from non-virtuous acts (i.e. the violence of murder – see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post).
The previous Sutras offer immense assurance. If we practice yoga in this way, we can count on these results. When we show up for our practice in this way, we give back to the world with these offerings.
And then comes…
4 – THE ULTIMATE PROMISE OF ALL PROMISES
Sutra 2.16 is my most favorite idea in the whole-wide-world. “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.” By using yoga’s tools on and off the mat, we can avoid future suffering! Yea! Not only can we decrease physical injuries by practicing Asana with respect for our bodies, we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing Raja Yoga’s ideas. This doesn’t mean that we can avoid bad experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold. But we can avoid misery and suffering while going through any difficulties by utilizing some of the resources that we’ve explored during March and April.
MEDITATION: CHAKRA CHANT FOR BALANCE
- Settle – Sit in a comfortable seated pose, lower body grounded, spine long, heart open.
- Breathe – Inhale into the belly, fill the ribs, and then breathe up to the collar-bone. Exhale and release from the collar bone, ribs and belly. Continue this deep three-part breathing throught the nostrils until the mind and body relax.
- 1st Chakra – Bring the awareness to the base of the spine, the point of rootedness and the area of elimination. The seed mantra for this chakra is “L-OM.” Inhale deeply then chant one long “LOM.”
- 2nd Chakra – Shift the awareness to the base of the spine, toward the front of the body, near the reproductive organs. The seed mantra for this chakra is “V-OM.” Inhale deeply then chant one long “VOM.”
- 3rd Chakra – Move the awareness to the belly, the area of digestion. The seed mantra here is “R-OM.” Inhale deeply then chant one long “ROM.”
- 4th Chakra – Raise the awareness to the heart center, our area of love and devotion. The seed mantra is “Y-OM.” Inhale deeply then chant one long “YOM.”
- 5th Chakra – Lift the awarness to the base of the throat, our center of communication. The seed mantra is “H-OM.” Inhale deeply then chant one long “HOM.”
- 6th Chakra – Focus the awareness on the “Third Eye,” the area between the brows, our center of intuition. The seed mantra is “SH-OM.” Inhale deeply then chant one long “SHOM.”
- 7th Chakra – Rest the awareness on the crown of the head, our center of pure consciousness. The seed mantra is “OM.” Inhale deeply then chant one long “OM.”
- Sit silently for a little while and enjoy the raising vibrations.
MEDITATION: THE WISDOM OF THE HEART
- Begin by thinking of a crossroad, decision, confusion or question in your current life. Without criticism or judgment, simply reflect on the situation.
- Settle into a meditative position – whatever seated pose is comfortable for you.
- Close the eyes. Witness the breath as it is at the moment; notice the state of the mind; and observe the qualities of the body. No need to change a thing – simple witness, notice, observe.
- Begin to shape the breath into deep, three-part inhale and exhale. Inhale into the belly, ribs, then collar-bone. Exhale from the collar-bone, ribs, then belly. Breath only through the nostrils.
- Allow the mind to rest on the breath. You might listen to the sound of the breath, or mentally follow the path of the breath, or note how the body moves with the breath.
- Become aware of the growing ease in the body as you continue this deep, three-part breathing.
- Continuing the breathing, as you fill the ribs, expand them forward, sideways and backward, filling the lungs like a big barrel of air. Allow your exhales to become longer than the inhales, seeping slowly out of the nose, thoroughly emptying of air.
Enhance Heart Chakra Awareness
- Maintaining focus on the ribs and lungs, deepen the awareness into the heart chakra. Imagine the heart chakra expanding forward, sideways and backward – as well as above and below the body.
- Once you sense the expansion of the heart, bring to mind your crossroad, decision, confusion or question. Let the mind rest neutrally on the situation.
Explore Your Wisdom
- On your next inhale, silently begin the sentence, “I know in my heart…”
- On the exhale – without extra thought or over-analyzing – finish the sentence with your natural, immediate response, silently or aloud.
- Depending on your situation, some examples might be, “I know in my heart…I am in love.” Or, “I know in my heart…this career is no longer right for me.” And perhaps, “I know in my heart…I am afraid to try new things.”
- Remain focused on the heart center and continue the deep, three-part breathing. With each inhale, repeat, “I know in my heart…” And with each long, slow, thorough exhale, finish the sentence.
- Repeat the process 10 times. You might find the same statement arising; you might state a different response each time.
Close and Journal
- After your 10th repetition, return to normal breathing. Allow the mind to return to neutral, perhaps resting on the natural flow of your breath.
- Slowly open the eyes. Jot down whatever you remember about your exercise – including how your breath, mind and body felt; how some of your sentences ended; and any additional thoughts.
- Consider this wisdom as you address your situation in the coming days…
MEDITATION: THE HEART’S DESIRE
- Sit in a comfortable position. Cross-legged, on the heels, or on a chair with feet flat on the floor.
- Close the eyes. Witness the breath, the mind, the body.
- Begin to deepen the breath into three parts (Deergha Swaasam). Inhale into the lower lobes of the lungs (belly area), middle lungs (rib cage) and upper lungs (collar-bone), then exhaling down from the collar-bone, ribs and belly. Let each inhale be strong and full, and each exhale be long and thoroughly emptying.
- Allow the mind to rest on the breath. Follow the flow of air with the mind, listening to the sound of the breath, or feeling the body move with each inhale/exhale.
- Feel the body sink and expand. Become aware of the lower body’s contact with the ground, its stability, support, balance. Become aware of the upper body’s length and let the heart center begin to open.
- Expand the heart center. (See “Let Your Heart Bloom Open” for detailed instructions). Using inhales and exhales to enhance your movement, reach the crown of the head toward the sky, maintain the length in the neck, broaden the collar bone, expand the rib cage, maintain the length along the side body, allow the shoulder blades to release toward each other and down the back.
- Bring the hands into Lotus Mudra. Press the palms together in front of the heart; then, leave only the heel of the palms, the pinkies and the thumbs touching while spreading and opening the fingers and palms. The hands represent a lotus in full bloom.
- Continue the Deergha Swaasam breath. Imagine the inhale flowing through your lotus and filling the belly, flowing into your cupped palms and filling your ribs, then flowing up to the finger tips and collar-bone. Imagine the exhale emptying from your finger tips and collar-bone, palms and ribs, then emptying the belly out through the lotus.
- As you continue this breathing technique, bring to mind your Heart’s Desire or Sankalpa. It might be a resolution, an intention, or a wish for yourself or another.
- On the inhales, imagine filling your lotus with your Heart’s Desire.
- On the exhales, imagine releasing this wish from your lotus, sharing it with the universe.
- Continue this visualization for at least three rounds of Deergha Swaasam breathing.
- Seal your meditation by chanting the seed mantra for the heart chakra, “Yaum” (sounds like “OM” with an added “Y”).
VIDEOS & LINKS
- Gopi’s Yoga Mandala: This beautiful video of DC-based teacher Gopi Kinnicutt demonstrates a new wave of Asana flow – a devotional, dance-like practice. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qj9UzUVs8oI
- Seane Corn’s Body Prayer: International yoga instructor and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World (www.offthematintotheworld.org) illustrates how Asana can itself be a prayer. We can hear the intimacy of her every breath as she dedicates the Surya Namaskaram to her cancer-ridden father. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWfzDVT5Tmo
ACROYOGA VIDEO: A GRACEFUL PARTNER DANCE
This is the 1st time that I’ve seen AcroYoga as true Vinyasa. Time floats by as the yogi/yogini share their organic exchange of synchronicity and support. Live musical accompaniment by Michael Franti of Spearhead! (Thanks to my Brazilian twin sister and fellow Franti-fan, Debora, for the link.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdZnHyF_Oy0
AVOIDING ATHLETES FOOT FROM YOGA MATS
DAILY TIPS TO REDUCE STRESS
DC meditation teacher (and Salsa dancer!) Klia Blassing offers meditation and mindfulness suggestions at www.twitter.com/visityourself
Over the past month, four students have mentioned limbs or body parts falling asleep during Hatha practice. I relate – even as I type this, the wrist bones of both of my hands have become numb. Technically, “sleepiness” (aka tingling, pins-and-needles, numbness) occurs from pressure on the body and related consequences such as nerve or artery interference. It is harmless as long as the body part awakens promptly with gentle movement. So the tip is: shift your position at the first signs; or, as in meditative practices, witness and accept the sensation. Personally, I think the change of seasons, possible dehydration or – because it happens inconsistently – a physical transformation might be at its root. As with any medical question, I highly recommend asking a medical professional. My fave article about this very normal phenomenon is at How Stuff Works. Hope this is helpful! http://health.howstuffworks.com/question552.htm