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LOVING THE PRACTICE – 2018 Kiss My Asana Offering #14 April 14, 2018

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 31-Day Challenge, Abhyasa, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Donate, Faith, Fitness, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Health, Hope, Karma Yoga, Life, Love, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Mysticism, One Hoop, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Science, Surya Namaskar, Texas, TV, Twin Cities, Vairagya, Vipassana, Volunteer, Women, Yin Yoga, Yoga.
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I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

– from One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII by Pablo Neruda (translated by Mark Eisner)

One of the things I love about practicing yoga is that it is a life-long practice. I love that the practice, like a laboratory or a playground, is a safe place to explore. I love that at the heart of the practice…is more practice, which prepares you for more practice. And, I also love how each part of the philosophy prepares you for the next limb, so that, when practiced simultaneously, each limb takes you deeper and higher. My favorite analogy of this is that it’s similar to climbing a tree:

You use the lower limbs to climb up to point where you can settle in and look around. In settling in, you stand or sit on one limb, while holding on to the trunk and a second limb. You can continue climbing, climb back down, or move out to the side, all depending on how you use the limbs.

I love that even someone new to yoga can recognize it as practice. Just today, in fact, someone commented that it was helpful to think of it as a practice – rather than a habit. I love that! I love too that when you get in the frame mind of “practicing,” (rather than perfecting, or even mastering) you are forced the stay present. The body changes and the mind changes, therefore, the practice changes. Even if you practice a tradition where the sequence stays the same, everything else – including your awareness and understanding – changes from one moment to the next, one breath to the next, one pose to the next, one…. You get the idea.

Truly practicing yoga requires staying present and observing oneself. In fact, svadyaya (self study), is one of the internal observations (niyama) at the beginning of the philosophy of yoga and, as such, it is one of the cornerstones of the practice. If you study yourself, it you invest the time, you will find your practice. I say that, because I truly believe there is a practice for everybody and a practice for each and every body (and a practice for every mind). It is not “one size fits all,” despite how it sometimes appears from the magazines and boutique studios.

There are practices that use a lot of props and practices that barely use props. There are practices where people spend a lot of time lying down on their backs, practices where people spend a lot of time sitting, and practices where people spend a lot of time standing. There are practices where people hold poses for long periods of time and practices where people seem to be in perpetual movement. There are practices where people do the same thing every time and practices that change with the weather. There are practices with music, and practices without music. I could go on, but, let me step back.

In the early part of the 20th Century, when Sri Krishnamacharya started a resurgence of Hatha Yoga practice in India, people practiced together, but they practiced what they needed. So, individual practice in a group setting – something you rarely see in the States, unless you are practicing Ashtanga Mysore-style. When Krishnamacharya started sending his students out into the world to teach, they essentially taught their own personal practice: alignment-focused, vinyasa-focused, breath-focused, and person-focused. Don’t get me wrong, none of those first practices to hit the Western fell very far from the Kirshnamacharya-tree – they all include elements of alignment, vinyasa, pranayama, and individual awareness. However, there is also just enough division for the yoga traditions to look like the various schisms which produced Protestant churches.

And, personally, I love that! Not the division. No, I love that there are so many styles and traditions – so many paths.

all the many paths that
lead into / the light that
shines bright inside of
me and you

– from Be the Change (Niraj Chag’s Swaraj Mix) by MC Yogi

Pick up a copy of B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga and you will find poses and sequences for targeting certain body parts, various ailments, and for people who want to progress in the practice. Pick up Iyengar’s Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health and you will find the same type of information, plus details on to use props in order to enhance your practice. Pick up David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual and you will find detailed instructions on how to modify (and progress) within one of the most physically vigorous physical practices. Pick up T. K. V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga or Sharon Gannon and David Life’s Jivamukti Yoga and you will find the physical practice mixing with the philosophy in a way that takes if off the mat. Pick up Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life or Sarah Power’s Insight Yoga and now, the practice is clearly meditation. Pick up Jinjer’s Stanton’s Yoga For Every Room in Your House and you quite literally discover that you can practice yoga anywhere!

On and on it goes – and that’s the point. The practice is perpetual and eternal – if you practice. But it is way too easy not to practice.

I was fortunate in that my first teachers were like Yoda: they focused on what a person could do. They didn’t focus on what they (the teacher) could practice; they focused on what each individual could practice. We were still challenged, but we were challenged in a way that encouraged us to play, explore, study, and practice. The result of such engagement was an awareness of all the different ways someone could practice. And, that awareness, led to a deep acceptance – which is the path to true love.

“I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,”

– from One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII by Pablo Neruda (translated by Mark Eisner)

One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII by Pablo Neruda (translated by Mike Eisner)

(Practice Time ~ 20 – 30 minutes)

Very deliberately and mindfully place yourself in Child’s Pose (Balasana). Notice how you are supported – how the body rests between or on the legs. Make sure your knees are comfortable, and remember that you can always place a cushion under the knees, under the hips, or under the chest. Breathe into your heart and consider what you can appreciate about this moment. Be present with the sensations/information in and around your body. Bring awareness to your feet. Notice what you can love about your body and your mind in this position.

Start to engage your locks (bandhas) on the exhale: spread the toes and press the feet down (in this case tops of the feet down) for the Foot Lock (Pada Bandha); squeeze the perineum muscles together, lifting the pelvic floor for the Root Lock (Mula Bandha) – which engages your lower abdominal cavity; belly button up and back for abdominal core lock (Uddiyana Bandha) – which engages your upper abdominal cavity; draw the chin towards the throat and chest, lengthening the neck, for the Throat Lock (Jalandhara Bandha). Notice your awareness of your body when the locks (bandhas) are engaged versus when they are released.

Once you’ve engaged your mind-body-spirit, move into Table Top: stack shoulders over elbows, elbows over wrists, hips over knees. Press down to lift up, activating the arms, the legs, and the lower three (3) locks. Notice the length of the spine, and how you support it. Notice the air again shifting around you. Move through Cat/Cow or the “Un-Cat” sequence precisely matching the movement to the breath. Move from your core so that the gaze is the last thing to come up and the last thing to turn down. Move, as if this is your favorite part of the practice and you are savoring it.

Once your mind, body, and spirit are synchronized, curl your toes under and exhale into Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Double check your engagement of the pose. Make sure all your fingers are spread wide, with the majority of the weight/pressure in your hands moving into the thumb and first finger. (So that, there is less weight/pressure applied to your outer wrists.) When you relax your head and shoulders, make sure your big toes are parallel to each other and at least a foot apart. Big toes can be behind the thumbs or behind the middle fingers. Hips are high, heels are low (reaching, but not necessarily touching the mat); and neck is long. With the arms straight (but not hyper-extended) rotate the elbows towards the nose. Even if you have to bend your knees, find Cow Pose in this position (so that you have a straight line from your middle fingers all the way up to your hips and then a second straight line from your hips to the back of your knees). Eyes are on your nose, your belly button, or the space between your toes. Engage your locks (bandhas) as you are able. Engage the air between your arms, between your legs, and in the space beneath your body. Find something to appreciate about your mind-body at this moment and as you explore the moment.

Notice the feeling of your entire back body (including legs and feet). Spread your legs a little wider (finding similar alignment as described above) and notice how the energy changes. Again, adjust the legs bring them closer and notice where you feel the pressure of the body. Notice, also, where and how you are working the hardest to keep the spine aligned. Separating the legs wider again, adjust the alignment of the spine. Notice where and how the body works in order to maintain length in the spine. Bring the big toes back behind the thumbs or the middle fingers. Align the spine with new awareness.

Still in Downward Facing Dog, point the right toes behind you so that the tops of the toes are on the mat. Lift the leg just enough to flex the ankle so that the toes point down instead of backwards. Now, balancing the weight with both arms and the left leg) making sure you do not dump on the left side) start to mindfully lift the right heel up – as if you are drawing a line up the space behind you. Keep the outer thighs rotated in towards the space beneath the body so that the right knee and toes point down. Pause when you notice the right hip rotating the knee and the toes out to the right; then adjust to find that internal rotation and make sure weight is still balanced in all 3 standing limbs. (Note: If the left elbow starts to bend or the right hand wants to lift up, you are probably dumping the weight on the left.) Continue to lift the heel, pausing as needed, until you can no longer balance the weight and/or control the alignment of the hip. Once you reach your edge, push through the hips and the heels so that you create more space between the right hip and heel and more space between the left hip and heel. After a few breaths in Three-Legged Dog, consider exhaling into Tinkling Dog by bending the right knee and externally rotating the right hip. Still, keep the weight balanced. Play, explore, investigate and then extend the knee and rotate the hip down to return to Three-Legged Dog. Exhale to release back into Downward Facing Dog and then repeat the sequence on the left side.

Remember you can skip the arm balancing, by moving into Staff Pose (Dandasana) and positioning the arms accordingly or using “Dolphin Dog.” Another modification would be to do the pose on the wall. Either way, strongly engage your legs and your core. Notice the feeling of your entire back body (including legs and feet). If you move into Staff Pose, the leg lifts up in front of you and your awareness is focused on keeping the hips grounded and the back straight. Cues for lifting the leg in “Dolphin Dog” or when on the wall are basically the same as in the original cues above.

After the final Three-Legged Down Dog, stretch back (meaning, push your spine towards your thighs) and on an exhale walk your hands to your feet or bring your hands and feet together. Once hands are in line with the toes and heels are flat to the mat, inhale to a Half Lift/Flat Back or Extended Forward Bend. (This pose may be called Ardha Uttanasana or Urdhva Uttanasana.) Place your hands on your thighs and press the shoulders into the metaphorical back pockets. Remember, you want to engage in a similar fashion to Cow Pose, Staff Pose, and Downward Facing Dog. In fact, inhale and find a little bit of Cow Pose (even if you have to bend your knees). Now, press the heels down and – as much as you are able without losing the extension of the spine – engage the quadriceps to extend through the knees and press the thigh bones into the wall behind you. Engage your locks (bandhas) as you are able. Again, notice the feeling of your entire back body (including legs and feet). Give thanks for something about this moment.

If you have unregulated blood pressure, low back issues, eye issues like glaucoma, or if this is already challenging, remember to stay here with knees bent.

Otherwise, if it is not contraindicated, bend the knees and flex from the hips to prep Forward Bend (Uttanasana). Keeping the upper back extended, place the hands on the floor or a block and begin to extend through the legs while pressing the thigh bones into the backs of your legs. Do not force the extension. Use the exhales to settle the heart on the thighs (as much as you are able without losing the extension of the spine.) If your legs are completely straight, make sure the knee caps are lifted and that you are not hyper-extending the knees. Also double check to ensure that if the knees are straight the hips are over the knees, not behind the ankles. Remember to engage your locks (bandhas). Notice the length of the spine. Again, notice the feeling of your entire back body (including legs and feet). Let something roll off your back – and appreciate the process of releasing what no longer serves you.

Inhale to Half Lift / Flat Back and use the exhale to engage your core. With hands on the hips, maintain the length of the spine and lift up to standing. Relax your arms by your sides. Balance the weight between all four corners of both feet. Feel free to move side-to-side or back and forth on the feet until you feel you are centered. Spread the toes, press big toes and little toes down, as well as both sides of the heels. (This establishes “all four corners of both feet.”) Engage the quadriceps in order to lift the knee caps and firm up the thighs. Sit bones point down so that the pelvic bones lift up. Engage your locks (bandhas). As you press down in order to lift the sternum up, use the core abdominal muscles to draw the lower rib cage down. Relax the shoulders and gaze straight ahead. This is Equal Standing / Mountain Pose (Samasthiti/Tadasana).

Changing as little as possible, stretch the arms out like the letter T. Once your arms are wide, root down through your feet and extend out of the center of your chest. Make sure shoulders, lower rib cage, and sits bones are reaching down. Notice the air above and below your arms. Embrace yourself on an exhale, inhale stretch the arms wide and then embrace yourself again (alternating the arms with each exhale).

Now, turn the palms up and inhale your arms overhead. (Many traditions refer to this as Arms Reaching Overhead (Urdhva Hastasana), but I tend to call this Tadasana). Make sure the lower rib cage drops down as the sternum lifts up and notice how that helps you engage your core. After several breaths, lower the arms to your sides on an exhale.

Maintaining the previously established alignment and awareness of breath, use the whole inhale to lift the arms overhead and the whole exhale to press the hands together through heart center. On the exhale of the third centering breath, walk to the front of the mat with hands through heart center.

Equal Standing is like a soldier in the “Ready” position. Appreciate the fact that you are prepared for the next sequence. Moving through half of a Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar), inhale arms over head into Arms Reaching Overhead; exhale and stretch the arms out wide as you dive between the hands into a Forward Bend; inhale to a Half Lift / Flat Back; exhale back to Forward Bend. Keeping the knees bent and the core engaged, inhale to reverse swan dive and then exhale hands back to your sides. Repeat the sequence until you feel your movement and breath are seamlessly fluid.

After the final exhale into Forward Bend, inhale into a Half Lift/ Flat Back and then step your left leg way back into a Low Lunge. Now is the time to really appreciate this moment and this pose. Make sure the feet are in two separate lanes. Inhale and extend the spine as if you are in Cow Pose of Half Lift / Flat Back. Press the right hip towards the left heel, so that the hips and sacrum are as neutral as possible. As you inhale, squeeze the thighs towards each other for external stability and then engage the locks (bandhas) for internal stability. Appreciate the effect of the effort: Allow the weight to come out of the hands. Appreciate that you are building strength and preparing your lower body for what’s to come. Notice that your heart is open and supported.

Inhale to lengthen the spine and then exhale the back knee to the mat. Give yourself cushion under the back knee, as needed. Pressing down evenly into both feet, lift your torso up and place hands on your right thigh for a variation of Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana).

Use an exhale to slide the hips over the back knee and then place the back of the right hand on your sacrum (the flat part of your bum/hips) and place your left hand on the front of your pelvic bones. Your hands are now bracketing your hips. Slide the back hand down in order to direct the sit bones down. You may feel the front hand lifting as the pelvic bones lift. Notice the length of your spine, especially your low back. You may also feel engagement in your left hip and thigh. Stay here or bend the front knee deeper into the lunge – remembering to maintain the space in your low back. Hands can come to your front thigh or reach the hands over head. Again, engage your locks (bandhas). Focus on the stability of the feet, legs, and hips. Focus, also, on the extension of the front of the back hip and thigh. This is the beginning of a backbend. Again, appreciate this bit of vinyasa-krama (step-by-step progression).

When you are ready to move on, place the hands on the mat and step back to Child’s Pose. From Child’s Pose, you may inhale to Cow Pose or, first time through, slide your body forward so that the legs stretch out behind you. Press the tops of the feet down, push the hands into the floor beneath your shoulders and inhale into Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana). Elbows should be bent behind the back like grasshopper legs (unless you are working on a baby cobra.) Thighs are strongly engaged and pushing into the floor. Hips stay on the ground. Keep the shoulders down the back and either isometrically engage the arms – by pushing the hands down and engaging the arms as if you’re going to pull your body forward – or let your hands hover (breathing into the space between your hands and the mat). Notice how your support your heart with your feet. After a few breaths, consider extending your Cobra by pressing the hands and feet down and lifting the body up until the arms straighten. Shoulders and hips are still pressing down. Notice the difference between how the front of your lift hip and thigh feel versus the right hip and thigh. Again, notice how you are supporting your heart with your feet.

On an exhale, curl your toes under and press back to Downward Facing Dog. Repeat the sequence of standing poses (starting with the first Forward Bend after Downward Facing Dog, substituting left for right). After the Child’s Pose, you may inhale to Cow Pose, Cobra Pose, or, second time through, glide your body up and forward so that the legs stretch out behind you with the arms straight and the hips lifted away from the mat. Press the tops of the feet down, push the hands into the floor beneath your shoulders and inhale into Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana). Thighs are strongly engaged and lifting up towards the ceiling. Kneecaps lift up towards the hips – again, so that the thighs are firm. Again, compare the feeling at the front of the hips and thighs. Again, notice how the engagement of the feet supports your heart.

After the second side of standing poses and backbends, move into Downward Facing Dog, and then into Staff Pose (Dandasana). Sitting tall with legs stretched out in front of you: remember, this pose is not disposable. Consider the length of your spine and how you use your locks (bandhas) to maintain it.

Keep the left leg extended and bend the right knee in order to set up the Sage Twist. Remember to keep the left heel and the right foot flat on the floor. You can place the right foot next to the inside or the outside of the left leg, as long as the knees are comfortable and the right foot is flat on the floor.

On an inhale, lift your right arm up and, as you watch it, reach the right arm back to the floor behind your hips. As you settle into the twist, adjust your left arm to provide additional support wherever you need it. You can always sit on a block and/or place a block under your hand if you’re hips and low back are really tight. If you don’t have a block, substitute a book.

Watch how you engage your base, your core, and your breath in order to lengthen your spine. Remember to start the twist in your base (not in your neck). Do not allow your body to collapse or untwist until you complete 3 – 5 complete breaths. Notice how the air moves within you and all around you. Pay particular attention to how the space shifts between your belly and legs. Give thanks for the gentle compression and massage that starts to calm your system and prepare you for the final meditation.

After the third or fifth exhale, inhale to center, give the lifted knee a squeeze, and return to Staff Pose. Repeat the Sage Twist instructions for the Sage Twist (replacing right with left).

After the third or fifth exhale on the left, inhale to center and give the lifted knee a squeeze. Bend both knees, placing the feet flat on the floor. (NOTE: If you’d rather not balance on your sits bones, lie down on your back and follow the cues.) Reach the arms forward with elbows next to the knees. Press down as if you are going to jump forward. Spread your toes, squeeze your perineum muscles together, belly button is up and back, press your shoulders down, and draw the chin towards the neck. Look up and press down to lift the ribs up on the inhale. As you exhale, lean back until the feet are off the ground and you are balancing on your tail bone. Bring legs up parallel to the ground. Check in with your locks (bandhas) – maybe even lifting the corners of your mouth up towards your ears for a smiling bandha. Begin to extend the legs by engaging the quadriceps and pushing through the heels. Keep your nose up and your eyes on your nose. This is Boat Pose (Navasana).

Find your edge, making sure your core works harder than your jaw or your arms. Give thanks. Give A LOT of thanks!

Then, lower down onto your back (with gratitude) for Corpse Pose (Savasana). Find a place where your body and mind can be still. Breathe into the space between your soles, your heart, and your soul. Take a moment to notice how falling in love with your practice allows you to fall in love with yourself.

This opportunity to explore a poem on the mat is a giant Easter egg (because it’s Valentine’s in April) and part of my offering for the 2018 Kiss My Asana yogathon. I encourage you to set aside at least 5 minutes a day during April, to practice with the poem as inspiration. You can practice in a class or on your own, but since the Kiss My Asana yogathon raises resources as well as awareness, I invite you to join me at the donation-based class on April 28th.

I also challenge you to set aside a certain amount every day that you practice with a poem in mind. It doesn’t matter if you set aside one dollar per practice or $25 – set aside that amount each time you practice and donate it by April 30th.

Founded by Matthew Sanford, Mind Body Solutions helps those who have experienced trauma, loss, and disability find new ways to live by integrating both mind and body. They provide classes, workshops, and outreach programs. They also train yoga teachers and offer highly specialized training for health care professionals. By participating in the Kiss My Asana yogathon you join a global movement, but in a personal way. In other words, you practice yoga. Or, as this year’s tag line states….

### do yoga. share yoga. help others. ###

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