In the chakra system of energetic anatomy, the base of the spine embodies the earth element, bhumi. The pelvis can be thought of as the earth of the body, connecting the trunk to the legs and supporting all forms of movement. This practice is a dedication to the earth both within and without - an expression of deep hip opening through forward bends, bowing in respect to this sweet little planet we call home.
What is Yoga?
I always like to start a practice by closing my eyes and observing my breath. The breath contains so much information about what is happening inside the body, but I'm usually too distracted to receive it. That's why I need the first few moments of tuning in and connecting to the breath so that I can drop into the yoga. But what does that even mean?
Since I am a bit of a linguistics nerd, it helps me to understand where the words in this practice actually come from. I find the language of it all to be fascinating and so telling of the original intent. The word, "yoga" comes from the root word in Sanskrit, "yuj", meaning union or to yoke. In the modern yoga world, we use the word as part of an action - "do yoga", "practice yoga", or as one of my dearest Japanese friends likes to say "play yoga". In reality though, yoga is about being, not doing. Yoga is a state of connection, it is the union of your inner and outer awareness. From Leslie Kaminoff, yoga is "...any time that your body, your breath and your mind are doing the same thing at the same time". The beauty of this definition of yoga is that you can have it anywhere. You can be yoga while you're running, while you're waiting in line or doing laundry. Yoga doesn't require that you put your foot behind your head, but if your breath is open and expansive, your foot is moving in that direction and your mind is willing it to happen, then you have the yoga. You're not doing it, you are it. You may not ever reach the full expression of all of the physical shapes, but at least you are in a state of yoga. Which is the whole point of the practice.
What this also means is that we can be in the physical practice without any yoga at all. Is the mind wandering? Is the breath absent? If so, then there is no yoga even though the outer shape may be in alignment. Don't let the body do it alone, let the practice be a collaborative effort. Check in often: where is my mind? where is/isn't my breath? This way, you invite yoga onto your mat and you can start to explore yoga in other areas of your life. How can the mundane become infinitely interesting by aligning the body, breath and mind?
This sequence, "Revolve", focuses on revolving the spine by oscillating the limbs in coordination with the breath. When the breath participates in the revolution of the spine, it can leave the body feeling refreshed and energized. The alternative is forcing the spine to twist using only external effort. Here, we explore a combination of both internal and external forces. The waves of this practice cycle through progressively deeper twists to massage the internal organs and strengthen the spine with backbends and hanumanasana to unravel at the end.
I spent a lovely wayfaring weekend in Hong Kong over the last several days which included a lot of walking, late nights and a very small hotel room with just enough space for the occasional forward bend. During this time, my yoga consisted of rolling around and stretching in bed along with daily seated meditation, but not much in the way of expansive practice.
Today's practice was an intentionally slow flow with an emphasis on hip opening as therapy for muscles and joints in contraction over several days of inaction. Not to mention a 4 hour flight each way. This is exactly what my body and heart were craving, sometimes it just feels so damn good to come back to the mat.
In the yogic tradition, the spine is considered to be the central axis out of which all things arise and back to which all things return. As an extension of this concept, the back side of the body represents the direction of the west. It symbolizes the setting sun and all things that have come before, in the past. The back of the body cannot be directly seen with our own eyes and yet it supports so much of our forward movement and what lies ahead. The western facing side of the body represents our deeply set, unconscious actions and habits. By awakening and releasing the backs of the legs and the posterior muscles of the spine, we begin to invite to the surface any past imprints, samskaras, that we want to let go of.
With the inhale, I encourage you to breathe into the areas that need space for possibility.
With the exhale, commit to releasing anything that arises that is no longer serving you.
This practice releases the hamstrings and the muscles that support the spine through deep split-leg forward bends and flexion. As counterpose to the deep inward reflection of folding forward, we explore vibrant backbends to enliven the spine and open the heart.
The body is not in service of the asana (pose), the asana is in service of the body, mind and spirit. The pose is not the point. The shapes that we create with our bodies are instead designed to give us even the subtlest little awakenings each time we practice. If you feel better (kinder, calmer, more patient) at the end of your yoga practice than when you started, then you're doing it right.
The practice of a yoga mala can be deeply cleansing and invigorating - especially during a seasonal shift. For me, this practice didn't exactly coincide with the vernal equinox, but it served me shortly thereafter when I felt that I needed a "reset". As a regular practitioner of sun salutations, I was able to release all intellectualizing and simply allow my breath to guide me.
Each forward bend served as a pranam (bow, surrender, respect) to the earth and each vibrant backbend as a salute to the emerging light. In this moving meditation, the body is the mala, the breath is the mantra.
My dear friend and yoga teacher has always told me that praying is when you ask the big questions whereas meditation is when you listen for the big answers. This practice was especially powerful for me because I was seeking answers that became clear after sweating my prayers.
More on Practicing a Yoga Mala
A yoga mala can be practiced in a number of different ways using any combination of surya namaksars (sun salutations) that totals 108. In the practice shown in the video below, I completed 12 cycles consisting of 7 surya namaskar A and 2 surya namaskar B. I used the sweet little sake set shown in the photo for counting. One cup has 7 clear beads representing 1 surya namaskar A each and 2 wood beads representing 1 surya namaskar B each. A second cup has 12 wood beads representing each complete round. For each round, I transferred the 7 clear beads and 2 wood beads back and forth between the two far right cups. When the transfer was complete, I moved a wood bead from the left most cup into the pitcher. Rise, lather, repeat. 108 times. You can use seeds, post-it notes, or even keep track using the chakras of the body. Or, simply let go of the numbers and practice until your heart feels complete.
For an outline of the asana sequence in Surya Namaskar A and B, please click below.
The vernal equinox marks an auspicious time for nurturing intentions and releasing harmful patterns. From the darkness of winter, we begin to breathe life into our vision for the year as we find energy levels rising. This class plan focuses on deep, cleansing backbends that energize the spirit and stimulate the endocrine system. As a tribute to the balance point between light and dark marked by the vernal equinox, this practice infuses one leg standing balance throughout.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ― Cynthia Occell
For more information on aligning your practice with the new season, check out my latest post on allyoucanyoga.com!
So many entry points, so many exits, so many beautiful ways to explore "3 points where 2 lines meet." I am totally taken with trikonasana.
I am currently studying in an online course called The History of Yoga with Christopher Tompkins and Shiva Rea. Today I listened to one of the classes while traveling home from Tokyo on the train. When I got home, I sat down to write a few sentences in reflection as an assignment. What developed in the writing below became more of an ah ha! moment about how our minds shape our reality. I have always understood this concept in theory and I've even experienced this in my own practice of positivity. But today was something special despite having been relatively normal on the surface.
This recorded transmission came with particularly poignant timing that is probably best described as a narrative of my day leading up to listening to the call. I woke from a troublesome night of little sleep. My beloved and I are apart for a month and my natural sleep rhythm, so entangled with his, is often disrupted when he is so many time zones removed from our home. Feeling a heaviness in my body and my eyes, I opted for a brief meditation and a longer practice of abhyanga than I usually allow time for. I used more oil that normal and spent extra time around my spine, knees and shoulders. I departed very early for a busy day in Tokyo which meant that even on a Saturday, I was in the bustle of rush hour traffic on the 8:30 AM train. I felt myself being pulled into the human drama that is “every (wo)man for themselves”, shoving and posturing for standing room only in the crowded train car. Normally, my body would stiffen up and harden in this situation as if to shield any unwanted contact. However, today I felt more in the flow. As I was pushed to and fro during the massive exchange of commuters at each stop, it felt more like I was being rocked by ocean waves than forced out of the way as an obstacle in someone’s path. I didn’t feel aggressive, I even found myself smiling. This situation would have usually been highly stressful, but today it was neutral, perhaps even positive. Did I mention it was raining, windy and bitter cold?
I made my first stop for a lesson about half way to Tokyo with two wildly intelligent (but very modest) women who like to practice speaking English by sharing their latest studies in cutting-edge psychology. They talked about their experiments and I asked them questions. When the hour was up, we synced calendars, waved goodbye and I walked away feeling so incredibly fortunate to be the person they have decided to call their teacher.
I immediately jump back on the train, no rush, no hardening. My second stop was Be Yoga Studio where I regularly get to teach a group of worldly expatriates who have landed in Japan for an extended stay. On this particular day, I decided to open and close the class with an offering of OM. No big deal right? Except that this was the first time since I began teaching several years ago that I have ever done this. My voice and my cells were supplicating the vibration.
My third and final stop was a reunion with another student who I hadn’t seen yet in 2015. I didn’t realize how much I had missed her until I saw her sprinting into the café for fear that she had kept me waiting too long. Her kindness immediately brought me joy. We exchanged small gifts (omiyage), shared photos and laughed out loud. I left our time together seriously questioning what I could have possibly done to deserve this amazing day? It dawned on me that every day has the same precious 24 hours of potential to be this remarkable, it’s just a matter of perspective.
Then, after bobbing and weaving through hordes of people on Tokyo streets, I hopped back on the train to return home. And that’s when I began listening to the call. It was like each little nugget of learning was gently tugging at my heart as a result of my direct experience.
1. The Tantric wisdom of withdrawing oneself from the daily minutiae of human drama at least once a day as personal sadhana to lessen the gravitation toward greater suffering. (I allowed myself extra time for self-love through abhyanga.)
2. The definition of yoga as dissolving the fluctuations of the mind and as liberation from suffering by connecting to one’s truest essence (purusha). (I was not captivated by the crowd mentality on a busy train, I felt intrinsically peaceful.)
3. The universal sound of OM dissipating the grip of anxious thinking and emotional grasping. Chris Tompkins poetically describes this as “… the ultimate unbounded, unspoken reverberating resonance of the universe – the expression of pure vocalic timelessness that brings our awareness into a state of expansion.” (My body was called to the sound of OM in practice.)
It is no coincidence that I listened to this call out of order – I accidentally hit the call 3 recording on my smartphone instead of call 2 which should have been next in line for me to listen to. I was meant to hear this one today. Nice one Universe! The final piece in this simple awakening came in the form of the contemplation question at the end of the call: Have you ever experienced yoga? For me the answer was a resounding yes, today I have experienced yoga in all of the exquisitely ordinary ways listed above.
If you haven't already seen this video and you have 12 minutes to laugh and have your heart lightened, check out this daily dose of happy. Not only is Shawn Anchor smart and funny, but he's is the fastest most coherent speaker I've ever seen.
I feel my natural rhythm beginning to harmonize with the approach of spring. I am energized by the reemergence of light with longer days, sunshine and so many beautiful plants in bloom I can hardly stand it.
I’m not sure whether it is the change of seasons or the impending transitions of so many people that I love, but I have been feeling a little uprooted as of late. I generally love the energy of change, I welcome it. I find peace in the chaos and have learned to embrace transitions for the opportunities that they bring. As a creature of conditioning, I had to learn to love this feeling. I have moved more than 20 different times over the course of my life. Some moves were international, others just down the road, some moves were temporary and all moves involved some degree of packing and unpacking. Only in my most recent series of moves however, did I begin to appreciate the simple comfort that can come with developing roots wherever you go.
To balance this recent uprooted feeling, I have found great ease in a grounding yoga practice this week, awakening muladhara, the root chakra. Anatomically located at the base of the spine, this energetic center is the seat of emotional and physical stability promoting a healthy foundation for the remaining chakras.
One of my favorite ways to bring awareness to the root chakra is by practicing the variation of balasana (child’s pose) shown below. In this shape, the base of the spine softly rests upon that which grounds the body to the earth – the feet.
Jacki Carr of Rock Your Bliss recently started a conversation with their bliss crafting community by posing the following inquiry: "What question you grappling with right now?"
For me, the answer was easy, and it is something I grapple with often, especially as I move deeper into the study of yoga.
How do I liberate myself from attachment and stay connected to my authentic self?
Yesterday, I received a heart waking email from a dear friend who described her recent emancipation from fear and anxiety. She achieved this radical shift by declaring, "I am not my fear, I am not my anxiety, thoughts, etc." And while I typically vibe more with positive affirmations, there was tremendous power in her "I am not..." statement. Detachment is shedding the ego to recognize that I am not my fear, I am not my pain, I am not my shame. However, the conundrum that I grapple with is, does detachment also mean that I am not my joy, I am not my peace, I am not my creative expression?
What lights me up is connection, to myself and others...so how do I experience that connection and at the same time, liberate my waking life from attachment? Are connection and detachment mutually exclusive?
Love and gratitude to Jacki for always stoking the fire of self inquiry!
I recently re-read the poem below by Courtney Walsh and was again comforted by the shared quality of human-ness. Too often we get lost in our human-ness: our thoughts, our physicality, our internal critic. We forget how truly awesome it is that we are, in the words of Stephan Rechtschaffe, conscious of our consciousness. It is this extra “something” that allows us the exhilarating, albeit complex, freedom to be understood by other humans and to connect to the present moment.
And yet, our human-ness is temporary. It is a means for the universe to express and experience joy as “spiritual beings having a human experience.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
Dear Human: You’ve got it all wrong.
You didn’t come here to master unconditional love.
That is where you came from and where you’ll return.
You came here to learn personal love.
Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love.
Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love.
Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling.
Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often.
You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are.
You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous.
And then to rise again into remembering.
But unconditional love? Stop telling that story.
Love, in truth, doesn’t need ANY other adjectives.
It doesn’t require modifiers.
It doesn’t require the condition of perfection.
It only asks that you show up. And do your best.
That you stay present and feel fully.
That you shine and fly and laugh and cry
and hurt and heal and fall and get back up
and play and work and live and die as YOU.
It’s enough. It’s Plenty.