World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. -- Louis Macneice
At the beginning of August, when the leaves held the deepest hues of green, the leaves satiate with chlorophyll, engorged with chlorophyll, with all those hours of light, you walked to the creek. And there at the creek, you sat with your shoes off as water poured from one hollowed drum to another, the whole creek percussive and flowing, the flowing never ending, never ending and you beside this eternal flow, lying back and listening. How many years had passed since you'd known such solitude, such aloneness? All the while creek waters rose and kept rising, fell and kept falling, through seasons, all the while flowing and carving the shape of sandstone.
You lie back on the sandstone and the creek flows, a tempered drum, a low flow that comes at deepest summer. You lie back, the sun not yet above the alders but behind the toppest leaves, the leaves shuddering alive and awake to the warm wind and the warm wind spinning them. The sun flashes between leaves, alive itself and the whole world alive to the sun. And then, in the space between trees and sun, a galaxy of fireweed floats. This constellation, this universe of seed, blows and shifts on the current of winds, above all your knowing. They are specks, like we are all specks, knowing nothing but flight and height and movement beneath the sun. It is all there at once for you, this world incorrigibly plural and various: the galaxy and wind, the percussive creek and all the green deepening. Everything opens in this moment of generosity, everything so wide and eternal you can only rest in it and weep. Your heart is in this world, on the edge of a creek at summer's middle mark. And all this moment is a moment in time that passes away with all of time. But it seems to you a generous thing, this aliveness of the creek and the leaves in the wind. A generous thing to breathe this galaxy in as your heart beats and beats, to breathe it out as the percussive creek flows eternally down. And here, now, your heart's edges soften and the whole world, as it is, pours in.
A few weeks ago, I taught a workshop that focused on strengthening and lengthening the back. The idea struck me when I remembered I'd hurt my back last spring, something common as the weather warms and we get busy in gardens or other spring-inspired activities. Good to go into spring with a strong back rather than wait until injury occurs.
I contemplated the back itself. The low-back, that lumbar region, which in some people tightens and in others is an area of weakness, a place where they hang out or push into vulnerable areas to compensate for tightness elsewhere. Then there’s the upper-back, another common area for trouble to pop up. Shoulders and upper traps can leave us feeling weak or achy.
Vasisthasana, or the variation of side-plank pose I’ll present here, addresses both upper and lower back, as well as core-strength. As you go through the variations, contemplate which works best for you. Sometimes we want the final pose, but we’re actually more connected to the actions of the pose in an earlier stage. As you practice ask yourself: Am I working with integrity? Can I focus on the actions of the pose? Or am I wanting to get ahead of myself?
To get a sense of the shoulder action in vasisthasana, stand with your right side about 18 inches away from the wall. Place your right hand on the wall, palm flat, hand directly in line with your shoulder. Press that hand into the wall and move your right shoulder blade down away from your ear (first you might have to lift it up to find the downward action). As you bring the shoulder blade down toward your waist, keep the right hand firmly on the wall and straighten the arm. The sensation can become intense through the forearm as well as the shoulder. This work isn’t as easy as it looks! Repeat on the other side.
Here the shoulder blade is lifting up. Sometimes it is helpful to try the opposite action.
Now the shoulder blade moves down. See how much space it creates around the neck.
A closer look.
Vasisthasana Stage One
Place your mat against a wall. Then lie on your right side with your torso parallel to the wall, your knees bent. Your elbow is below your shoulder and your forearm presses into the floor. In this first stage keep your hips on the floor. Now, take the shoulder action you learned above and apply it here. Press the forearm down, move the right shoulder blade down toward the waist. Lift the ribs away from the floor, keeping the head in line with the spine, the shoulder blades and hips also in line. Do you feel how when you lift the ribs the core muscles engage along the underside of the body? Make sure as you lift the ribs that the shoulder blade stays moving down and there’s the sense of lifting away from the floor, not sagging into the shoulder joint.
Try the other side.
Remember, this is an effective way of working this pose and if the next stages are too much, you can happily strengthen your back here.
Vasisthasana Stage Two
Start as above, but then lift your hips, so that only your calves, ankles and feet stay down. At this stage, keep your head drawn back toward the wall so the chest stays open. If you feel wobbly, you can place the left hand on a brick or chair.
Now notice what happens when you had the pelvis into your lift. It’s a heavy piece of anatomy! Make sure it stays lifting. If not rest it down, go back to stage one.
Repeat on the other side.
Vasisthasana Stage Three
When you’re ready to try this stage, do as above, then extend the legs straight out. Place one foot on top of the other and pull the little-toe edge of the top foot toward the knee. Keep the buttocks lengthening toward the heels, press the heels away from the buttocks. Keep lifting the whole body up -- ankles, knees, hips, ribs -- all lifting away from the floor. Shoulder blade draws down and forearm presses into the floor.
The wall is helpful here to check your alignment. Heels, buttocks, shoulder blades, back of the head -- should all be parallel to the wall.
Repeat on the other side.
If you're able to maintain balance, stretch your top arm up toward the ceiling.
Enjoy this strength-building pose with a dose of non-aggression. Hold only a few breaths and repeat only a few times on each side. Let strength build in time, rather than all at once. Remember to enjoy!
(A big thanks to Caroline Bradfield for taking these photographs. An enthusiastic student and budding photographer!)
A few years back, I read Vanda Scaravelli’s lovely book Awakening the Spine. In it, she describes gravity as a beautiful relationship between Earth and body. Up to that point, I’d adopted cultural assumptions about the way gravity reeks havoc on a body, forcing flesh to sag and bones to compress. Scaravelli had an illustration of a flower, roots descending into the earth as the stem grew upward and the flower blossomed. Of course.
In yoga, we can imitate this earthbound connection, the rooting quality of body to earth, to discover the ease with which our spines can lengthen and grow. Typically we have either a propped up response to gravity -- very heightened and agitated, a militant straight spine -- or, a very depressed sag toward the earth. There are variations on these themes, of course, but it is helpful to realize we can cultivate a nourishing relationship toward gravity and use that relationship to help our posture and our minds.
Stand in tadasana and connect with the four corners of your feet. Observe the weight distribution over the four corners and then press them down into the floor. Actively set your roots down. As you do this, what happens to your spine? Do you feel yourself lengthen without force? What about your mind? Does it feel calm? Centred?
Once you have that sense of grounding in tadasana (mountain pose), begin to explore the downward-upward action in urdhva hastasana (upward salute pose).
Maintain tadasana, connecting to the pressing down action of the feet. Then, lengthen from your shoulders into your fingertips and bring the arms up alongside the ears. Rotate the upper arms toward the ears to spread the shoulder blades. Once the arms are lifted, observe what happens to your countenance. Did your eyes harden? Do you feel like you have to stretch higher? Then bring your awareness back down into your feet and root them down. As you press down, you naturally feed the upward action of the pose. Root down with the feet. Lengthen up through the arms. Hold for several breaths exploring this relationship.
Urdhva hastasana with wide-stance
Now step the feet into wide-stance. Feet parallel to each other. With the legs wide, again connect with all four corners of both feet. As in tadasana (mountain pose), root the four corners down into the floor and tighten the kneecaps. Before you bring the arms into urdhva hastasana (upward-salute pose) make sure the buttocks draw down toward the floor so the low back remains long. Charge the legs by pressing into the four corners and then bring the arms up overhead. Make sure the upper arms roll toward the ears, so the shoulder blades stay wide, the neck free.
Again, explore the way the rooting down quality of the pose, fuels and frees up the upward action. If you notice any tension in the face and jaw, find your breath and bring your awareness back into your feet. Hold for several breaths. Release your arms down and step your feet together. Repeat as many times as you like.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana
This downward-upward relationship to gravity is helpful in all yoga poses, but particularly useful when we balance on one leg. You can explore the above actions in vrksasana (tree pose) and in the following pose: utthita hasta padangusthasana (big toe hold).
Place a chair against the wall with either the back of the chair or the seat, facing you. (If you have tight hamstrings, start with the foot placed on the chair-seat). Stand in tadasana facing your chair. Connect with the rooting of both feet into the floor. Observe the lift of the trunk. Now, maintain those actions and lift one knee into the body and place the foot on the chair back/seat. You may need the wall to help with your balance. That’s fine. We’re looking for the downward-upward action, so if it’s easier for you to find while holding the wall, do that.
Once your foot is on the chair back/seat, notice if you’ve distorted the standing leg. Often we push the thigh forward and skew the pelvis to lift the foot up. Again, connect to the standing foot and root those four corners down. This should offer you an easy sense of being able to lift the trunk up away from the thigh. Notice if that is true for you. If not, take the foot onto a lower height.
Use the wall if balance is a challenge for you. Seek the downward-upward action.
Press through the four corners of the lifted foot. Stretching the whole back of that leg. Now take the arms up into urdva hastasana. Remember to roll the upper arms toward the ears.
Stay several breaths, connecting to the rooted quality through the legs and the lifted quality through the trunk and the arms. If you notice tension in the face, return your awareness to the legs. Seek out the downward quality to feed the pose, rather than completely abandoning yourself to the pain in the back of the legs. Work at a place you can both root down and lengthen up.
To release, bend your knee. Come back to tadasana and repeat on the second side.
Have fun exploring the ways in which you can relate to gravity. And remember, it’s always there and available to you!
My New Year’s resolution this year isn’t all that new. I adopted it sometime last summer when I noticed my mind whirring in a panic of discontent around all the books I hadn’t read that would surely, once I’d read them, make me a better writer.
On the corner of my desk I caught a glimpse of another stack of books that promised improved self-awareness, spiritual growth and all around better-ness. My abdomen tightened at the thought of the time I had allotted to read and the chunks of reading I’d assigned myself. Plus I had undertaken a variety of different practices, including asana, to improve one aspect of my life or another.
Even my relationships emulated this earnest trying. A kind of wanting to please, to make everyone happy or to like me. And in one brief moment, I realized the impossibility of it all. I couldn’t sustain a practice of should-do-mores and try-harders. What I needed was to un-try. To catch myself in the throes of self-improvement and let go of striving.
At first I thought this would help my breathing and my state of mind. But a deeper unravelling began to happen in my life. Things I did to “keep it together” no longer worked in my un-trying. Truths about myself arose in ways that were less than comfortable and I realized all this trying covers up our deep anxieties and insecurities, it keeps us from knowing ourselves as we really are.
One of the self-observances of yoga, one of the niyamas, is santosa -- which translates as contentment. Some translate it as acceptance. A few years ago, I heard someone say that spiritual practice was basically this: radical self-acceptance. Accepting yourself as you truly are. The more I examine this, the more difficult it seems. In our nit-picky culture of comparison and judgment, self-acceptance would appear to be a set up for failure.
Now, in this fresh start season of January, I wonder if it is as elusive as I believe.
This winter, after many winters of talking about it, I have finally taken up cross-country skiing. I love being outside, love the quiet of forests and mountain trails, love the steady rhythm of moving my body. Yesterday, my husband and I set out on a nine-kilometre track under a stack of quietly flaking cloud. My gear came from a used sports store, it’s old and unpretentious, it eats blisters into my heels, but it works.
My husband glided well-ahead of me and sometimes I felt the pull to keep up, or the belief that I wasn’t a good enough skier. Then I brought my awareness back into my body, to relax my hands around the poles and to the undulating movement of my sacrum which helped the gliding push of my legs. I realized that I loved being there, that my body was happy just to move like this and that I never needed to get better at it and I could set my own pace and continue to enjoy it.
And this seemed to me a breakthrough in understanding santosa and my ongoing practice of un-trying. That the paradox of self-improvement isn’t by adding more layers of goals and striving, but to remove layers and offer the body and mind spacious moments of contentment where joy can seep through and overtake you.
In a yoga asana practice, vinyasa often connotes the linking of poses in a flow. Sun salutations are a perfect example of vinyasa, though sequences can and do vary.
A few weeks ago, my energy stagnated and I was compelled to integrate dynamic movement into my practice as a means of shifting it. Often, in Iyengar yoga, each pose is worked independently. Focus on certain elements of the pose are offered as a means to work dynamically within a posture. I love this work and it is why I’m drawn to Iyengar yoga -- all the delicious details! That said -- sometimes I just need to move.
So here are two variations of a simple vinyasa that lengthens and tones the spine, opens the hips and engages the core. The chair variation is for anyone suffering from arthritis, tight shoulders and even exceptionally tight hamstrings. This cycle can be done in five or ten minutes and is perfect for those who never seem to have enough time!
Downward Dog: chair variation
Downward Dog: Floor Variation
In the chair:
Grip the sides of the chair with your hands. Step the feet back away from the chair, lift the buttocks up toward the ceiling. Widen your shoulder blades away from the spine by wrapping the back-armpit area toward your chest. Lengthen both sides of your body away from the chair. Pull your kneecaps up toward the tops of your thighs and send your thighbones back.
Explore the lift of the sitting bones here. If you take your heels to the floor, do the sits-bones/buttocks drop toward the floor? If they do, bend your knees and lift them again. Stay on the balls of your feet to engage the thigh muscles. Then lower your heels as much as you can without losing that lift.
On the floor:
Start on the hands and knees. Place your hands one hand-length in front of your shoulders. Tuck your toes, press into your hands and lift the buttocks up toward the ceiling. Widen your shoulder blades away from the spine by wrapping the back-armpit area toward your chest. Lengthen both sides of your body away from the chair. Pull your kneecaps up toward the tops of your thighs and send your thighbones back.
One-legged Downward Dog: Chair Variation
One-legged Downward Dog: Floor Variation
Dog with Lifted Leg
For both chair and floor:
Keep the weight even over the palms of both hands. Lengthen through the sides of your body and lift your right leg up, stretching the heel back toward the space behind you. Notice your pelvis. Has it tipped? Keep both pelvic rims facing the floor by rolling the inner right thigh toward the ceiling. Notice your hands. Is the weight evenly distributed over your palms? Or are you tipping to one side? Keep the back armpit chest moving toward the legs. Lengthen.
modified plank with engaged core
Modified Plank with Engaged Core
For both chair and floor:
From the lifted leg position, bend your right knee into your chest and start to move so that your shoulders come over-top your wrists. Holding this position, push away from the chair with the arms and keep the shoulder-blades moving toward your waist. Draw the knee closer into the body and you should feel the abdominal muscles engage. Keep the straight leg firm.
You can repeat this action several times. Reaching the leg back into Dog with Lifted Leg and into Modified Plank. Or you can just do it once on the way to your lunge. You decide what you need today.
modified plank: floor variation
In the chair position, it is easier to step the front foot forward. After you’ve pulled the knee into the chest, set the right foot between the legs of the chair. Descend the buttocks toward the floor and draw the right hip back away from the chair to keep both sides of the waist long.
Roll the shoulders away from the ears and lengthen the breastbone toward the chair-back. Stretch through the left heel, pull that left kneecap up. Observe the back leg, roll the inner thigh up toward the ceiling to keep the sacrum broad and the hips level.
Lunge with Chair
For the floor:
The step forward into lunge can be tricky on the floor. You may want to stretch back into one-legged dog so that you can use the momentum to swing the leg right through. Once the knee is drawn into the chest, place the foot between the hands. If it doesn’t make it all the way, drop the back knee onto the floor, take hold of your right ankle and lift the foot to the space between your hands.
With the foot forward, descend the buttocks toward the floor to bring the right thigh parallel to the floor. Move the right outer hip away from the knee. Roll the shoulder-blades down the back and lengthen the front of the body toward the space in front of you. Stretch through the left heel, pulling that left kneecap up. Observe the back leg, roll the inner thigh up toward the ceiling to keep the sacrum broad and the hips level.
For both variations:
Hold for two or three or four breaths, then step back into downward dog.
Lunge on the floor
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
After you’ve stepped back into your variation of downward dog, repeat the sequence with the left leg. Then back to the right. And on and on until you feel successfully moved!
People often ask what they should be doing with the breath in the yoga postures. Mostly, I tell them not to worry about how to breathe, but to make sure that they are breathing. When we begin practicing asana, there is a huge learning curve, to focus on the way you breathe can over-ride what is needed in the actions of the body.
That said, however, it is essential to breathe. Oftentimes, we hold the breath because we want to be in control of a situation. Including asana. Say you are in Triangle Pose and you are focusing on all the instruction because you are a good person and you want to do the pose correctly, in fact you’d like it to be the best pose ever and then the instructor says, Breathe and you realize you’ve been holding your breath. This is quite common. So to recognize you’re holding the breath, helps you free up the breath and bring vitality into your posture.
The yogic practice of pranayama is the study of the breath. Often performed in reclined or sitting positions it asks you to expand the breath or blast the breath or even make the sound of a buzzing bee. In Iyengar yoga, pranayama is usually practiced separately from asana.
I carry a lot of tension in my diaphragm. After all these years of practicing yoga, I was quite shocked to discover that my solar plexus was loaded with tension. A variety of fears and anxieties caused me to tighten there (like, say, fear of death). Faced with that realization, I understood how important it was to soften the abdomen and that to release tension I need to do some conscious breath-work.
In classes and workshops, I’d done some pranayama. Lying down, I could appreciate the work, but sitting, I created more tension, anxious to ‘get it right’. (Which is funny, isn’t it?)
A friend of mine passed on Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book. If you have a set of lungs and a functioning body, you should read this book. Beautifully written, Farhi outlines the different breathing patterns most of us adopt over a lifetime -- shallow, reverse, chest, frozen. Most of us have lost the connection to what she calls the Essential breath. A pattern of freed up breath we knew when we were young children.
What I particularly like about Farhi’s approach is her suggestion to ‘un-learn’ habits of breathing. Our tendency is to want to ‘fix’ by adding to, rather than subtracting from, the patterns that already exist.
If you’ve never really explored the breath, or even if you’ve done advanced pranayama, lie on the floor with your knees bent, let your knees fall together and place your hands on your abdomen. Let your eyes close. Relax your face and bring your awareness to your breath. Don’t feel you have to do anything -- making the breath bigger or better -- just allow. Let your breath arise and fall. Rise and fall.
Where in your body do you feel the arising of the breath? Where does it return? What about the space between inhalation and exhalation? The hardest thing is to keep judgement and labeling at bay. With breath awareness, let yourself inquire and be curious without needing to achieve anything.
Farhi offers many insights into the anatomy of breath -- making it quite accessible and poetic. She also outlines asanas that help to free the breath, giving more space to the chest and loosen up the diaphragm.
Imagine if we all spent fifteen minutes with our breath everyday? We might be a happier people. A more relaxed folk, trusting of the wider world.
I leave you with a quote from Robert Henri:
A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not
need to adopt new and startling methods.
Okay, okay. I have a little more for you about lengthening the inner thigh and opening the pelvic bowl. So much activity happens around the pelvis and hips both, muscularly and organically, that the more we can open there the more space we offer the bones, the joints and even the organs. Standing poses, particularly the lateral standing poses, allow our bodies to access the areas we tend to tighten and close. Think about the belly, the groins, even the heart. These are all sensitive, vulnerable organs and when we operate in our daily lives we tend to tighten forward to protect (usually unconsciously) ourselves. I was amazed to learn that when I had a fear response, I hardened my front groins as though wanting to pull my knees into my chest and wait until the perceived danger passed. Standing poses can help to unwind some of these habits of holding, soften muscles that tend to grip and offer us awareness of areas we tend to close.
Let's take Virabhadrasana II. (Warrior Two). Usually, I have students use the back foot at the wall to connect with the stabilizing action of the back leg. This is good and important work. If you were in class a while back, you'll recall the work we did with the front thigh and the brick. In class, we had the advantage of working with a partner, strap around the back thigh to support the back leg -- a true wishbone effect -- but, at home, you can work this way:
Stand with your right leg facing the wall. Make sure when you bend your front knee there is room to wedge your block between wall and knee, then come back to the position where your feet are wide, left foot turned in, slightly, and right foot facing the wall. Now, establish the back leg. Press the foot into the floor, particularly aware of the outer edge. Turn the inner left thigh out, keeping the left hip moving away from the wall. (It's important to note that the pelvis is not completely square, if it were our knee would be very strained).
Keep those actions and bend the knee toward the wall, placing the block between wall and top shin. Lengthen your inner thigh toward the block to keep the block from falling on your toes! Did you lose the action of the back leg? Find it again. Now that your thighs open away from each other make sure you lift the pelvic rims (hip bones) up toward the waist and lengthen the trunk.
Take your hands onto your hips and explore the leg action. What does keeping the block there do for your inner thigh? Can you stay connected to the back leg? What does the pelvis feel like to you? Your back?
Make sure you retrieve the block before straightening your front leg. Then, turn your feet and change sides.
Try the pose again without the block. Notice the difference in the ways of working.
Enjoy exploring your inner warrior and let me know how it works for you!
There's a scene in Harry Potter where our heroes seek to save the Philosopher's Stone. The leap from the trap door (guarded by the three-headed dog) and are caught by a net of the magical plant: Devil's Snare. Once they drop into the trap tendrils wrap around their arms and legs; the children wriggle to free themselves, but matters only worsen. Finally, brainy Hermione remembers that the way out of the situation is to relax with it.
I've been thinking how this Devil's Snare is a perfect metaphor for the sticky trappings of our minds. The way we find ourselves trapped in certain situations and the way we struggle that only furthers our entrapment.
A few days ago, a familiar pattern of tension rose up my neck and cast its net over my skull. The pain causes discomfort and arises when I've tweaked my shoulder, worked it without awareness, or when I've been trying too hard. As I was in bed, trying to relax, I realized I was experiencing an urgent sense of wanting to rid myself of the pain. This, I realized, only made my tension mount.
Interesting, I thought. And I wondered what would happen if I stopped trying to fix it, stopped trying to make it go away as is so often my habit. Soon, I found all tension sliding away. I realized how much we resist 'what is' in subtle ways. We don't want to feel pain (aversion to pain), so we 'fight' against it. This pain could be as simple as a noise that annoys us or, indigestion. Tension mounts in our resistance to our annoyance, adding fuel to the fire.
Years of asana hone our sensitivity to the subtle changes of our inner bodies/minds. Within a pose, we discover where we are open, both psychologically and physically, and where we create resistance (sometimes within the same asana!). Notice thoughts like: ah, I can't do this pose ... I hate this pose ... I love this pose! ... I've had enough of this pose. All these judgments simply reflect our mental process, we are not required to stop these thoughts from arising, but to notice and be with them. Sometimes, however, we mentally thrash out, adding more judgment (I should stop thinking about how I hate this, what a terrible yogi I am, etc.) Physical cues that guide us to the breath or the relax of the eyes can help quiet the mental noise, loosening its grip.
When an unpleasant experience arises and I find myself bulking in resistance, I like to think of Pema Chodron (a Buddhist nun and author of many books) who says of her Life: I am open, to salty. And I am open to sweet.
All of our experience exists. Not just pleasure, not just pain. And in yoga, we can learn to relax with what arises, to create space, and drop from the tendrils of that Devil's Snare.
The adductor muscles run the length of your inner thigh. We made the connection to them in the abdominal poses I posted last month. Now, in this basic seated pose, we'll aim to lengthen these muscles.
Sometimes the adductors grip, contributing to a pulling of the pelvis or even troubles in the back and/or spine. In class, a few weeks ago, I had you work the Baddha Konasana before working standing poses, not only to create length in the muscles, but to open up space in the pelvis. This allows for increase blood-flow to the pelvic and abdominal organs, offering them true organic health.
When we first sit in Baddha Konasana**, we may come to the alarming realization that our knees hover well above our hips and our backs round and the abdomen collapses. Often, I see students pushing on their thighs, or worse, their knees, to get those knees to the floor. But if we go back to our objective, we want to create length along the inner thigh and space in the pelvis, we may need to lift up on some height.
Take what height you need. A block or two, a blanket or three, or even a bolster. Bring the bottoms of your feet together, your knees apart. Now, take the marble test: if you placed a marble on the inner knee, would it roll to the groin? If yes, you need more height. If marginally, then you can experiment. If no, then, you may find you get more release through the inner leg.
If you feel the gripping or strain in the inner thighs, be sure to support them by placing rolled up blankets, blocks etc., beneath hem This support offers the muscles an opportunity to actually let go. If they don't have the support, they may actually tighten.
Now sit with the hands beside your hips, or place a strap around the outer feet and hold it with your hands to lengthen the body. Lift the sides of your body evenly up. Draw your shoulder-blades down your back and into your chest. Sit here for several minutes. First, observe your breath and allow the abdomen to soften. Then, bring your awareness to your inner thighs. Keep the corners of your feet pressing together as you consciously lengthen from inner groins to inner knees.
Now, lean to your left and with your right hand lengthen the right thighbone toward the knee (don't push the knee down!). As you slide the thigh further away from the pelvis, draw the pelvic rim (hip bone) up toward the waist. Feel how it creates a sense of space and traction in the joint, freeing up congestion there.
Do the same on the other side.
When you've completed both sides, come back to Baddha Konasana with the hands behind or holding the strap. Observe the inner thighs. Do they feel longer? Softer? How about the pelvis? Can you feel the breath in the pelvic cavity?
You can start your practice this way, or place it near the end of your practice. Or, if you only have a short time, practice it on its own. Even while watching a movie!
** Note: If you find it difficult to hold the back of the waist into the body and the spine lifted, practice with the back against the wall.
Recently, I've become interested in the art of storytelling. Back in November, storyteller, Naomi Steinberg blew my mind with a storytelling workshop. She opened portals of narrative for me that I did not know existed. With her deft facilitation, I literally found myself pulled by a current of ancient stories. The stories are everywhere, but you need to know how to look. And then, you learn how to tell.
Before she came, she'd left instruction to chose a fairy tale. God, I thought. Do I really want to do this? But I had committed. Besides, my friend Jenny had loved it. So, reluctantly I sought out a story to bring. No princesses as beautiful of the moon (so patriarchal!), no talking animals (so juvenile!), no wicked witches (again with the patriarchy...). I chose the Emperor's New Clothes. Beginning. Middle. End.
The thing was, as we worked on the stories, as we unearthed their essences, I found myself longing for the very witches I'd cast away. I wanted a wise woman. A princess. And some strange magic to occur.
But I stuck with my Emperor, his vanity embarrassed me though I could imagine him salivating over the promise of the most exquisite woven cloth. I entered the landscape of the story, touched it with reluctant fingers and found in its centre avarice and pride, shame and naked truth. The very traits that exist in all of us.
The Emperor did rattle me. He brought me to the trading centre of a coastal city and made me feel the absolute vulnerability of a man exposed – naked no less -- to an entire audience of people. My heart ached for him as I left him to walk his long walk back up to the castle.
At the end of the weekend, I was left feeling like I was part of a narrative current. That these ancient wise stories had a way of reaching into us, teaching us if we were only willing to listen.
And so it is with yoga. The tradition of yoga is ancient, its spiritual aims high. (Enlightenment, no less!). Like the stories, yoga asanas are small portals into the human narrative arc. We can observe how we are greedy like the Emperor, perhaps not for cloth, but for a "better" pose. Or, we may go into the pose expecting it to be familiar, only to discover a plot twist that brings us to a new awareness about our bodies or our minds.
As you enter a pose, think of a narrative arc. Beginning. Middle. End. The beginning offers the foundation, the premise for the pose. The middle, remember, is where the plot thickens. How is your body feeling today? The big toe mound is hard to ground. The left side is tighter than the right. The shoulder blades feel free today -- like wings.
Then, you return home. The end of the pose. After the journey. Somehow, at that moment you are changed. If only slightly. Different from when you started.