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WE CAN BEGIN AT ANYTIME: 2019 Kiss My Asana Offering #12 April 13, 2019

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The (slightly belated) “practice preview” below is part of my offering for the 2019 Kiss My Asana yogathon. I encourage you to set aside at least 5 minutes a day during April, to practice with today’s theme or concept 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 a donation-based class on April 27th or May 4th.

I also challenge you to set aside a certain amount every day that you practice with this concept/theme 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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“How strange that we can begin at any time.
With two feet we get down the street.
With a hand we undo the rose.
With an eye we lift up the peach tree
And hold it up to the wind – white blossoms
At our feet. Like today. I started”

 – excerpt from “Looking Around, Believing” by Gary Soto (born 4/12/1952)

Ever look around and wonder why we begin where we begin? Every wonder if we could start our yoga practice with a different pose? Or if it even matters where we start? For that matter, what would happen if we started earlier in life? Or later?

Okay, okay, some of those are purely rhetorical. And, as the title of this post clearly states, “we can begin at anytime” – but, what about the place/position in which we start?

If you are exposed to different styles and traditions, maybe through a single teacher or through your own curiosity, you will find that some styles and traditions always start with the same pose – but that “same pose” is not universal. Some practices start with Child’s Pose (Balasana). Some start with Equal Standing / Mountain Pose (Samastithi / Tadasana).Some start with the practitioners on their backs; still others start with practitioners in a seated position – but even then it’s not necessarily the same seated position.  Why all the variety? Let’s go deeper.

There’s something to be said for tradition. If you look back at Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras there are no asanas (or poses) detailed. Instead, Patanjali provides critical instructions on how to practice the poses. Specifically, he instructs “cultivating a steady/stable, easy/comfortable/joyful seat/pose” (YS II.46) and then proceeds to explain how the awareness and extension of breath (pranayama) extends out of finding balance in the body. Classical sacred texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipika (circa 15th century), Gheranda Samhita (early 17th century), or Shiva Samhita (circa 14th – 17th century), mostly list sitting on your sits-bones poses and begin with some variation of a cross-legged position. In all cases, the focus is on having an elongated spine, with the head balanced above the shoulders and hips, and effort balanced with relaxation. This type of pose reminds one of a meditation seat and is a great way to remember that the physical yoga practice is also a meditation practice, with the ultimate meditation state as its final goal. Emotionally, energetically, and symbolically, starting in a seated position indicates that the practice is a time for study, contemplation, and devotion.

Ashtanga, one of the first vinyasa practices to come to the western world, begins with Mountain Pose (Tadasana), which is also the first pose featured in B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. It is a foundational pose, in that there are elements of Mountain Pose (which Iyengar also refers to as Equal Standing) in almost every pose. When standing, there is particular emphasis on balance – left to right and top to bottom – and on the extension of the spine, which is supported by the engagement of the core. It is a pose which can be practiced on the feet, in a chair, but also lying on one’s back. It’s a great starting place, because it is a great reference point: you can come back again and again and notice the changes you have brought about in your body. There is, however, another benefit of starting in Equal Standing / Mountain Pose – it is standing at attention and so it is a signal that the practitioner is ready for what comes next and, more importantly, ready to move in any direction. Like certain sitting on your sits-bones poses, this is one of the most neutral starting positions simply because you can easily move from it into almost any position.

Child’s Pose is a great place to start, because one’s head is down and (like a child preparing for a nap) one is less likely to be distracted by external surroundings. There is a physical turning inward, as well as an emotional and energetic turning inward. Even though this can be a hard pose to hold if you have knee issues, it offers a lot a physical benefits: there is an opportunity to release the low back; an opportunity to open the hips; an opportunity to compress the abdominal area and thereby stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (in order to calm the body); it’s a baby inversion; and it is a great opportunity to stretch out the front of the legs. Most importantly, perhaps, is that once again the spine is long and there is balance. There is also a symbolic reason for starting in Child’s Pose: the beginning of the practice marks the birth of the practice (and practices that start here often move through a symbolic life cycle).

Since she draws from her experiences with different styles and traditions, Seane Corn will sometimes start practices from a standing position, sometimes from a sitting on the sits-bones position, and sometimes in Child’s Pose. During her vinyasa teacher training, however, she also points out that starting the practice on one’s back, creates openness and receptiveness. When you start on your back, you are also physically supported (along the head, shoulders, elbows, arms, hips, and heels) in a way that may allow the spine to easily align. The more supported and aligned you are, the more comfortable you might be and, therefore, the more receptive. Additionally, lying on your back indicates some form of Corpse Pose (Savasana) which, when considered in the context of reincarnation, can also be the symbolic “beginning” of the life cycle. (For example, if you start in Corpse Pose you can easily rollover into Child’s Pose and then stand up on all fours and then eventually stand up on your feet).

“As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things just keep going. I guess.”

– excerpt from “How Things Work” by Gary Soto

Where you begin your practice can set the emotional and energetic tone of the practice. And, while a good starting position will allow you to go anywhere (even if some poses require more movements than others – think 6 degrees of separation), some starting positions specifically prepare you for what’s to come. For instance, starting in Cow Face Pose (Gomukhāsana) legs, prepares the body for hip opening, while sitting in Hero’s Pose (Virasana) stretches out the front of the legs and knees (similar to Child’s Pose).

FEATURED POSE for April 11th: Easy Pose (Sukhāsana)

Easy Pose (Sukhāsana) can be the beginning, middle, and end of your practice. Sitting on the floor, with shoulders and hips aligned, bend your knees so that shins/ankles are crossed and each foot rests underneath the opposite thigh (i.e., right foot is under left thigh). Tilt the sits-bones slightly back and root them down in order to lengthen the spine.

Hips should be in line with or higher than the knees. If there is compression in the back and hips and/or if the knees are higher than the hips, sit up on top of something (making sure your stability is not compromised by the prop you’re using for support). If the knees are uncomfortable, experiment with the hips being higher than the knees, switching which leg is in front / on top, and/or squeezing the legs closer or further away from each other and from the hips.

Once you have your legs crossed, wiggle your arms and then let them rest on your thighs – palms up if you want a little energy, palms down if you want to be grounded. You can take any seal (mudra) or leave the palms open and relaxed.

Stack your spine as if you have coins in your back, with the largest denomination on the bottom so that you end up with a dime, a nickel, and a penny on top of whatever hair is on your head. Relax your shoulders and jaw, creating a little space between your lips and teeth. (Not so much space that someone could look down your throat to see if you still have your tonsils, but enough space so that the mouth, lips, teeth, jaw, and tongue can relax.)

Gaze 4 – 6 feet in front of your belly button and either softly shutter your eyes or blur your eyes through that focal point (drishti). Set a timer for 5 – 10 minutes and begin to notice your breath and the parts of your breath.

At the beginning of the practice, see how long you can sit and breathe in Easy Pose before you get distracted. Notice the first three (3) things that distract you. For instance, if your mind wanders away from your breath and you start thinking about something outside of the moment, your #1 today is “Thoughts.” If you deliberately refocus your mind on the breath and the parts of the breath, you may find your body getting a little antsy – in which case, your #2 today is “Sensations.” (Sensations can be pain or discomfort in the body that makes you want to move, the feeling of being too hot or too cold, and or the feeling that something needs to be scratched.) If you deliberately refocus your mind on the breath and the parts of the breath, you may find yourself feeling like it’s time to move or that you’re getting sleepy and then you could label your #3 today as “Emotions.”

Obviously, the examples above are generic examples and you may experience them in a different way or in a different order. However, note how long it takes for you to be distracted.  You could also make a note of how many times you bring your awareness back to breath. Keep in mind, this (bring the mind back, again and again) is the practice.

Make a note regarding your experiences during the time allotted and then move through any set of yoga poses or some other physical activities. If you notice specific physical discomforts/distractions, focus your practice on strengthening of relaxing the areas of the body that distracted you. If you found you were having a lot of mental distractions, challenge yourself by doing something that requires your complete attention. (If you’re looking for a practice, click here and see how Gary Soto’s poems inspired last year’s 12th offering.)

When you come back to the pose, set the timer again and notice what happens.

“Beneath my steps, my breath”

– excerpt from “Oranges” by Gary Soto

(for my twin and her best friend)

 

### NAMASTE ###