I heard this song today while I was savasana-ing after this practice and it made me smile uncontrollably as my eyes filled with happy tears. The lyrics are so simple, but they effortlessly articulate the reason why I practice, to let distractions melt away and really listen to whatever it is I need to hear.
"Still Listening" - Lucky Brown
Do you hear voices in your head?
That talk and sing to you in bed?
And do those voices give you thoughts,
'bout what is good and what is not?
[Well I heard some things, but I'm still listening I'm still listening]
Do you hear a voice that makes you laugh?
Or one that knows your secret past?
Is it sure or does it doubt?
Does it whisper, does it shout?
[Well I heard some things but I'm still listening. I'm still listening.]
Do you listen for the voice?
Or is it drowned out by the noise?
It's just the voice that you listen to,
But don't always do what it tells you.
[Well I heard some things, but I'm still listening. I'm still listening.]
It's the voice you hear everyday and sometimes wish, would go away.
But if that voice should ever fall silent,
Be quiet 'til you hear it again.
[Well I heard some things, but I'm still listening. I'm still listening.]
I have been focusing a lot on the power of sankalpa (vow, intention) as of late. Where it becomes more than just some arbitrary thought we have at the beginning of a practice. It goes beyond that. It's an idea, notion or concept that forms in the heart and mind that we have infinite determination to fulfill.
san = a connection to our innermost essence + highest truth; kalpa = rule to be followed above all others.
With this focus on sankalpa I found myself practicing anjali mudra again and again. And it reminded me of a courageous practitioner that I met about a year ago while teaching at Google headquarters. Not only was English not this woman's first language, but she was also blind. Yet, every evening, she showed up, heart open, ready for practice. Her practice was completely unique because it was informed by her internal vision. She would hear the words and then create the shape from the inside out. Each time I invited the class to "bring your hands to your heart in anjali mudra", this woman would wrap her arms around herself in a gentle heart hug that has stayed with me ever since. She was the first one to teach me svabhava mudra, the shape of our innermost essence. This sequence is inspired by that wonderful woman and the teaching she offered me selflessly through her embodiment.
Eka pada raja kapotasana, 1 leg king pigeon pose. I have always avoided the full expression of this shape. I generally visit it as a deep hip opener, but seldom much more than that. I've experimented with using a strap to access the back foot, but more as a means to open the quadriceps than to explore the realm of backbending. Lately however, I find myself magnetically drawn to this pose. I seek all the ways in which I can practice the pose without collapsing into my lower back and in a way that is painfree. But the desire to find this shape is driven from the inside out and as a result I am discovering so many new things about my breath and my body.
My yoga practice used to be about poses I could do and poses I couldn't do. I would get stronger at those that came naturally and I would avoid those that required deeper study and work. But now the unknowing is what lights me up. It connects me to my inner teacher, something that only comes as a result of direct experience. It's not always pretty, but it's practice.
Akasha is the element from which all things arise and to which all things return. It is the backdrop or the "space" that makes it possible for all the other elements to exist. It is all at once completely empty and yet all encompassing. We think of all that we know as being made up of "stuff", but if you look closely enough, there's space between the stuff.
When I was in Costa Rica earlier this year, studying with Shiva Rea, I was blessed to have a physicist in my tribe. As a wildly intelligent, spiritual practitioner, he would not only entertain my "nerding out" about all things yoga, but he would translate the vastly complex ideas into simple terms that I could understand and wrap my mind around. I'll never forget one of our conversations about the space element when he asked me to imagine the smallest possible thing that I could. I answered with a single atom and he described how it could be smaller still because at the center of the atom is a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons. (Something I learned years ago, but hadn't thought about in ages.) The next closest "something" circling the nucleus is an electron in the electron cloud...stay with me. Between the nucleus and the electrons is space. Now, to put this into terms that we can more readily understand, imagine that the earth were the nucleus of an atom, the next closest something (an electron) would be at a distance of Jupiter away! So the stuff we think of as solid is really made up of organized space. Unless there's smaller stuff that we don't yet have the ability to understand. Hopefully I didn't lose you there, maybe Dustin Hoffman and Mark Walberg can explain it more clearly:
When hearing the word "space" I generally think of outer space - the cosmos and the sense of awe rushes over me when gazing up at the night sky. For me, this sensation often results in contemplations on infinity and the edge of the universe which Inevitably yields acceptance of the unknown and joy in the unknowing.
We can search and seek outside ourselves for answers, but yoga gives us an opportunity explore the inner space of our consciousness with the same curiosity and wonder that we do outer space.
Here's another video of just how mind boggling the scale of space can be.
And finally, here is a sequence to awaken the space element, akasha inside the body.
The air element is matter in its gaseous form. The particles move faster and spread out making it less dense than the heavy elements of earth and water and giving it a quality of lightness. The most direct way to experience the air element is through the breath. We take air in and breathe air out, feeding our bodies with up to 30,000 cycles per day. And yet, we often don't recognize this element as nourishment. Consider however, that you can go 3 weeks without food (earth) and 3 days without water, but you can only go 3 minutes without air.
Air resides inside the heart chakra, anahata, which is where our true nature resides and in our most natural state, we are joyful. When meditating on the air element, I am reminded of Danielle Laporte's perfect analogy:
Happiness is like rising [champagne] bubbles -- delightful and inevitably fleeting. Joy is the oxygen -- ever present.
From the stability and grounding of the earth element, we transition to matter in its liquid state. The boundary begins to relax and we experience the fluidity of motion. Water is dynamic and adapts to its container. When faced with obstruction or resistance, water doesn't stop or struggle, it spontaneously changes its form and flows around the impediment following the path of least resistance. The breath, when fluid, guides us along this same path, flowing in and out of our deepest caverns to create slow change over time.
In the body, water or jala, is responsible for all the biofluids that keep our tissues healthy and functioning. And in its most natural state, water flows. When the flow stagnates, problems can occur. In the body, this equates to poor circulation, sometimes resulting in illness or disease. The practice of yoga asana balances the water element by clearing space for circulation and movement in both our physical and energetic bodies through the vehicle of the breath.
Water originates in the svadhisthana (2nd) chakra and is the energy of our creativity. It represents our ability to adapt and go with the flow. It helps to soften our hardened edges and connect us with our inner essence, beyond the physical form.
Like all things in nature, the body is made up of elements. In scientific terms, we consider elements like oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. In yogic terms, we simplify these elements into the energies of earth, water, fire, air and space.
The earth element represents matter in its solid state. In this state, matter is stable and the particles move slower. The earth element, bhumi or prithvi, is present inside all the structures of the body - from the cellular structures to our organs to muscles and bones. It establishes the foundation upon which transformation can occur, like the sand beneath a beach bonfire.
Earth comes to life in the the root chakra (muladhara) and helps us connect to our instinctual body. The bhava or feeling of the earth element is a smooth, steady rhythm that draws us closer to the ground by letting everything go to gravity. This magnetic earthly pull of consciousness supports the energy of manifestation where we put ideas into action.