WHO AM I?—YOGA’S CALL TO ACTION

WHO AM I?
Who am I? is considered to be one of the core inquiries in yoga practice. Am I composed of divine radiance manifesting into form or am I primarily this compilation of qualities and traits that feel to be thick, dark, and dense? Why is radiance obscured from my vision? If I am divine, why do I still suffer?

Who am I in this? Am I universal awareness, individual consciousness, or both?

From which layer of conscious awareness do I choose to perceive? Do I have choice in this? What does my choice have to do with how I experience life?

If the divine radiance propels manifestation in the first place, why does it mire the personal into the depths of form so that the universal source is missed by the individual’s perception?

Why even in serious and committed practice do we need to aspire so constantly to witness the source of who we are? Why is it not immediately evident to all? Variations on these questions have led many to deny the existence of God and completely denounce spiritual practice altogether.

NEVER NOT BROKEN—AND ALWAYS WHOLE
What if the universal design is just not what we think? What if the design is to create a seemingly chaotic explosion of structure and events in order to play? What if the design is for the vastness of universal creativity and intelligence to play and enjoy its own ability to create and manifest? Wouldn’t a nearly limitless intelligence want to throw the pieces asunder in order to challenge and entertain herself? What if, like a creative and intelligent child with a huge bin of Legos, the divine radiance has joyfully dumped them out on the floor, and with focus, determination, and love, is assembling them together into rich and varied forms? What if that is the game?

Would it be alright to simply be one of the disjointed pieces, that when woven together can make a whole?

The manifest world, as we experience it through our intelligence and perceptual abilities, is an intricately woven field of awareness and form. It is always fragmented and broken, and it is always whole. Nearly infinite creative possibilities are inherent in the pieces, and the pieces are always in flux. Everything that is alive is moving. If it is moving it is infused with prana, and prana is the creative partner and vehicle for divine awareness. Continue reading

DEVELOPING A PERSONAL PRACTICE— Active Relationship with the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

yogasutra1-14

The Yoga Sutra, the preeminent text on yoga consists of four padas—or sections—each containing a number of individual sutras. In his Yoga Sutra, the sage Patanjali sheds light onto the workings of the human mind, the specific and particular brands of suffering that we unwittingly impose upon ourselves, and the full picture of healing and resolution for our suffering. Patanjali has offered a codification and thorough description of the practice of yoga, and the means for relieving the inevitable suffering of the human mind that is not aware of its inherent depth of intelligence and power—Pure Unmanifest Awareness.  Patanjali provides us with a precise outline for practice.

I. Samadhi Pada defines yoga and puts the practice in perspective. We are introduced to the ways that our individual minds cloud our experience of the true nature of life.

II. Sadhana Pada covers the yamas, niyamas, asana, and pranayama. It provides the necessary framework for effective practice. Pranayama is the gateway to the inner world.

III. Vibhuti Pada takes over where Sadhana Pads leaves off, honing in on the more subtle aspects of practice. Beginning with pratyahara, it addresses the ways to continue to refine our awareness, addressing, dharana, dhyana, samadhi. This pada moves into the realm of samyama—the integration of the three.

IV. Kaivalya Pada: In the final Pada, Patanjali brings together many of the more esoteric and sometimes difficult to understand teachings of the practicality of practice. Although it may read as densely philosophical, it is rich with subtle practices of inquiry. Patanjali invites us in even deeper. When awareness has been mostly cleared these inquiries can bear fruitful knowledge and the inquiry itself continues to refine and hone the individual consciousness—making it a more and more radiant and open receptacle of Divine Light.

At the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lays out the context for practice. He encapsulates his entire message in the first three sutras, immediately addressing the need for practice, what the process requires, and the goal. If the first three sutras are intriguing enough, one will practice. If they are not, there will be little motivation to continue.

Sutra 1:1
atha yoganuśhāsanam
Now begins the instruction on the practice of yoga.

Atha communicates the auspicious nature of the teachings that are about to be elucidated.  Most commonly translated as “now”, atha is also the expression of the self-luminous guiding Intelligence that resides within the heart and mind of every human being. By using the term atah to initiate his treatise on yoga, Patanjali sets the stage for the comprehensive message that will follow: we are all radiant beings, our very nature is manifesting into form with brilliance and power, and it is possible to recognize this directly. The meaning of “now” is in itself auspicious. Now is the present moment, the place of no future, no past, only this exact unmoving place of presence and radiance. Now describes the unified state of mind. In the first sutra, Patanjali has created an inclusive container for all the teachings that are to come.

He continues to say that “now”, perhaps you may be open to undertaking the inquiry that will reveal the core of being to your conscious awareness. The implication is that now one may actually be ready to practice yoga. One has tried everything else, and finally understands the futility of looking for satisfaction within the arena of the solely personal field of individual mind. Having seen and tried every machination of effort to gain contentment in a life perceived through the most superficial layers of consciousness, one is now ready to seriously embark on the study of yoga.

With the term anuśhāsanam, Patanjali is stating emphatically that yoga means practice. Patanjali lets us know right away that the Yoga Sutra is not simply a philosophical text. Patanjali is stating right at the start that yoga requires practice and the strong implication is that practice will require commitment and fortitude. Continue reading

Embodying Transitional Space, Time and Movement

By Molly Stamell

Gravitational Waves As movers and practitioners of yoga, we know that the way we transition between poses is important to the ease and comfort of our practice. Off the mat, the transitions in our daily lives can likewise provide opportunities to tune into the way we embody our human form. The embodiment of transitions is also highly relevant to the time we live in. With so many unpredictable elements in our futures, it sometimes feels to me as though we are all living in a constant state of flux. Yoga offers us a tool for understanding the links between Us and what we perceive to be Other, between past, present and future, and our physical practice within the larger contexts of our lives. How do we embody transitional space and time? How does this embodiment manifest in our movement patterns?

As a teacher, the opportunity to offer seamless and comfortable transitions to my students is an important priority. This has real implications on a persons’ experience in my class. As my interest in transitions grew, and the more notice I took of my teaching habits and my students’ responses to them, the more the physical transitions between movements started to stand out to me. I teach both dance and yoga, and in both cases I was noticing transitions as a place of difficulty for many of my students. Whenever I notice a common thread where people are struggling, across physical disciplines and age differences, that is an immediate red flag for me. What was it about my teaching that was not communicating the physicality and mental state of being ‘in transition’?

As I began a new inquiry into how I embody transitions in my own movement practice, I was struck by something a parent of one of my young students said to me. She was explaining to me why they arrived late to a rehearsal, and as the story of their busy day unfolded, she said, “my daughter was just exhausted by that point in the day, so I took her home for some transition time before we came here.” At the time, I was so focused on ushering her daughter into the rehearsal she was late for that her comment about transition time didn’t even sink in until much later. But once it did, the significance of time became a focal point in my explorations. For example, children are sometimes allowed ‘transition time’ to shift from one activity to another. What they do with this time may differ significantly from child to child, but the objective is to give them time to process the experience they just had, and prepare them for whatever is coming next. As adults, we are allowed less and less of this kind of time. Not only that, we are expected not to need transition time at all. Whether those expectations are established by the people around us or by ourselves, they impose an urgency on how we function in our daily lives that does not allow for transitional time or space in which to process our lived experiences.

The developmental processes that shape our adult forms are time-based, just as the physical act of transitioning from one thing to another, whether it be an activity or two different asana poses, also occurs over a span of time. Certainly, we could look at the human life span as one long process of transition, from the rapid growth that occurs in utero, to the early movement patterns in the first year of life that lead us to standing upright, the infinite possibilities for movement thereafter and the eventual slowing of regeneration and return to the universal fabric from which we all originated. With this in mind, the embodiment of transitional space and time from a developmental perspective offers us a way in. In the same way that we can learn to embody specific aspects of our development, so too can we learn to embody the ongoing transitions that shape who and what we are.

Where do transitions live in the body? In other words, is there a specific place from which to explore the action of transitioning between poses? The consciousness of a transition, of being “in between” two or more things, suggests that space itself may be a good place to enter into transitional embodiment. The concept of space in the body can be misleading. On the one hand, as yoga practitioners we know that at the atomic level the human body contains vast amounts of space, but on the other, the body’s structures are not neatly positioned in close proximity with one another. Our body’s tissues and different anatomical structures touch and slide on each other. There aren’t pockets of emptiness that differentiate one thing from another. But as Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen has said, “The information is in the space.”

Using the developmental patterns as a template, the cells themselves provide a simple entry point for understanding transitional space in the body. Every cell has a bi-layer membrane surrounding it, comprised of two layers of lipid cells, in which proteins are embedded. The presence of two membranous layers is important. The inner wrapping of the cell interfaces with the internal world contained therein, while the exterior wrapping interfaces with the external environment surrounding the cell. This is very similar to the way our skin contains our entire body, with the inner surface receiving information from the inside, and the outer surface relaying sensory information from the outside. While these two layers of cellular membranes and their functions are fascinating on their own, it is the space between these layers that has implications for embodying transitions.

phospholipid-bilayer

Each cell in the body is equipped with its own intelligence. It knows exactly what it is supposed to do, without us having to tell it so. Each cell takes in nourishment, oxygen, and sensory information, and excretes waste and feedback to the system of which it is a part. The substance and information passing through each cell is contained very briefly in the space between the two cellular membranes – it has to be, if it passes from the interior of the cell to the exterior, and vice versa. This process roots the act of transitioning in both space and time. The passage of information and substance through the layers of the cellular membranes occurs over a measurable span of time, and occurs in the space that differentiates these layers. Once we understand this on the micro levels of the cells, we can apply it to any structure in the body during transitional movement.

Placing transitions within our anatomical structures gives us a context for exploring them as a physical action. But directing our awareness to a particular structure or even a quality or sensation within the body is not enough. We must have a means of achieving transitional embodiment. In this case, I believe the breath provides the answer. The breath is truly the easiest way in, the simplest route to uncovering deeper layers of awareness. Yoga is a clear example of how the breath can be integrated with movement to balance the flow of prana, through the body. But it is not only the inhale and the exhale that are important. The consciousness of a transitional state offers us a clue here. In yoga, we practice the breath in four stages, not two. The pauses at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale are of equal importance as the inhaling and exhaling breaths themselves. Pranayama practice includes many exercises in retaining the breath in or out to encourage longer pauses between inhalation and exhalation. Moving the body in transition during the pauses between breaths provided the missing link. Here is a concrete physical action and tool for accessing the consciousness of existing, however briefly, “in between” things. Although breathing is an involuntary action most of the time, we have the means to control it whenever we choose. By emphasizing the pauses between inhale and exhale during transitional movement, the body exists in harmony with the action it is performing.

Transitional movement involves a balance between control and yield to momentum, gravity, and ground reaction force. These three forces are responsible for the body’s movement, the primary difference between them being that the body is always at the mercy of gravity and ground reaction force, while momentum is initiated by us. It is the only one of the three forces that govern the body in motion of which we are in complete control. We can allow or arrest the force of momentum at any time. During an embodied act of transition, there is an act of surrender to these three forces, but there is also an act of will that enables the body-mind to either allow these forces to take over, or to sustain and control a transition if that is what is necessary or desired. At the level of the cells, the sensation of transition feels to me like a wash through the membrane layers, similar to an ocean wave. In every moment, there is a choice about how to navigate the forces moving through the body. To me, this feels like a diffusion of awareness throughout the entirety of the body’s form, rather than a pointed attention to one specific place.

Where does the support for the movement come from? What are the systems in play? What is the intention behind the movement, and how does the transition relate to what came before and what will come after? Exploring transitions in movement is one possibility for embodying the constant shifts of our lives. Transitions are happening all around us, from seasonal change, to the larger issue of climate change, to people transitioning between genders and the changing landscape of an increasingly developed world population. We live in a time of unpredictability, and learning how to balance the body with the changes occurring outside its boundaries is part of cultivating a deeper awareness of what it means to be embodied in the face of transition. Developing the tools and techniques to practice embodiment is all well and good, but how we apply this knowledge in our daily lives is where the information has real value.

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 2.19.56 PM

Considering the act of transitioning from an embodied perspective, one of the questions we may ask ourselves is whether people retain the same behavioral habits during the transitions they encounter out in the world as in their movement practices? Do those of us who rush through the transitions between yoga poses also bypass the transitions in our lives as places to spend time in? Do those of us who collapse physically during movement transitions lose our sense of support when we find ourselves in the middle of a life transition? Possibly. Transitioning can be uncomfortable, and perhaps this is part of what it means to sit in the feeling of discomfort. If you stay in it for long enough, odds are it won’t be uncomfortable forever. It seems possible to me that if we have the capacity to embody transitional time and space, that we likely approach the uncertainty of these circumstances in habitual ways. If something works for us once, we are more likely to repeat it, and it becomes a pattern. Perhaps the key to cultivating an embodied movement practice in the midst of transition requires no more than an awareness of how the body-mind is responding to changing circumstances.

As a teacher, I am conscious of the process of arrival. There is a process of coming into the building, into the room, into the space. We arrive in the studio, or at the top of the mat, and there is a state of readiness that settles over us, if we allow it time to manifest, and don’t rush into action too quickly. For this to happen, we must also arrive in our own bodies and minds, before we enter a practice that engages the trinity of our beings: mind-body-spirit. As I write this I am engulfed in a transitional time in my life. I am completing, wrapping up and moving on from one thing, while the next chapter is unfolding before me. I stand with one foot on each side of the divide. And perhaps this is the true essence of this inquiry. Do we ever truly arrive? Or do we simply transition, seamlessly between two sides of something, existing always in the spaces and time in between the constructs that compartmentalize our experiences?

 

 

Happy Knees in Yoga

bodhisattvas knees copyOur most basic pranic flows are laid down in the early days of our gestation. In the very first few weeks of life, our limb buds grew outward from our tiny bodies. The direction of their flow was clear and simple. There were no complications or great articulations at this point—just simple presence and potential—and this initial flow of life force is still present and underlies the healthy movement of all of our limbs. The underlying pranic flows in the body are always present within, and are supportive of healthy movement. Even when we have injured ourselves, torn and shredded structures, the healthy flow remains—as if dormant—underneath the injured tissues. In Embodyoga®, as in Body-Mind-Centering® we explore these initial movements of life force to understand, embody, and maintain health in all the body tissues. (We study embryological growth, and its importance in embodiment and yoga practice, in our training programs and workshops.)

Maintaining the continuity of the embryological spirals is organizing and supportive of the knee joints. The underlying spiral of the lower limb supports the knee and provides simplicity of flow through the limb that is balancing and healing to knee issues. All of the articulations that we go through in the knee, foreleg, ankle, and foot in our yoga postures are much later developments. By returning to the simplicity of the embryological spiral we allow the prana to flow as it naturally wants to, without laying on all sorts of ideas about what we think is right. Once prana is flowing, it will be much easier to address specific imbalances.

Front view of knee joint anatomy

Knee Anatomy
Understanding healthy rotations at the musculoskeletal level in the hip, foreleg, ankle, and foot are also critical for maintaining knee health. Improper rotations put excessive stress on the knee joint. The knee joints are unstable, true, but they are beautifully articulable when used wholesomely. When any of the joints above or below the knee are restricted (or hyper mobile) the knee will suffer. The knee needs an environment of good support without restriction. Because it is so mobile, if joints on either side are compromised the knee is very likely to take a major amount of stress.

In yoga practice we do many postures that require a lot of “knee rotation”. This requires integration and wholesome movement through the entire lower limb. What that means, is we need to figure out how to have rotational forces going through the knee without torqueing it and disturbing its delicate balance. It is never safe to allow forces to get caught in the knee joints. Forces must flow seamlessly through the knees at all times. Most people practice rotational movements without the benefit of understanding what needs to take place here and how to honor one’s own healthy range of motion.

Knee Rotations—Rotation is perhaps the trickiest of the knee’s articulations. Anatomists still often refer to the knee as a “hinge joint”. It is far from being a hinge. Rotations in the knee along with those of the foot and the foreleg provide the structural possibilities for so many different movements, making it possible to even walk comfortably on uneven surfaces. Our rotational abilities give a sense of freedom and ease in the knees. The menisci—one on each side of the tibial plateau— are responsible for assuring that these rotations move through the joints and feel good and free. They shouldn’t be painful, as is so often the case, especially in yoga practice. Continue reading

Radiance and Levity—The Glandular System in Yoga

7chakras-1050x700Yoga is a process of differentiating and unifying. We differentiate layers of consciousness and structure, we inquire, we analyze, and we find our way back to unity. In looking at the glandular system we are called upon to investigate the glands themselves, as well as how they relate to the subtle energy system of chakras and nadis.

In studying the glandular system in Embodyoga® we look at its support for body and mind, and especially its importance in all yoga practices. We focus primarily on the effects the endocrine glands have on our experience—how they support us in asana, in posture in general, and how they affect our experience of self. We look at how theCHAKRAS HELIX glandular system provides a suspension system for our core, and how the innate intelligence of individual glands is manifesting into form and functioning. Not all of the structures we look at are technically considered to be glands. Some are bodies, nodes, and one has yet to be recognized at all. We are loosely calling all of them glands because they do relate directly to the yogic chakra system and the yogis have classically placed what they have called glands as the structures that correlate with the chakras along the spine.

The radiant core of our individual being is felt within as sushumna nadi. The embodiment of sushumna supports our personal relationship with refined awareness and is our active connection to Source. Our latent qualities and traits—all the things that make up our personal selves—are contained within this embodied core and emanate out through the chakras, the energy vortexes that form along our central channel.  Each chakra has one or more glands that relate to it. Each gland is felt to contain and express subtle intelligence that is manifesting from the chakra and expressing outward into the full expression of our individuality. Due to their close relationship to core, our glands naturally emanate more light than some of the denser body tissues. For example, glandular expression has less gravity than that of organs. Organs feel more voluminous and heavy in the body. The levity of the glands balances the weight of the organ body.

Glands function as a single integrated system while maintaining their individual processes. As a suspension system from head-to-tail and tail-to-head, they offer light support along the vertebral column and through our soft tissue core. The brightness that emanates from them radiates in all directions, giving levity and resilience to the neighboring tissues. Individually, each gland secretes its particular hormones and stimulating agents into the surrounding fluids on their way to receptor sites in target cells throughout the body.

Each gland has correlations with different aspects of the skeletal system. This means that the gland and its skeletal correlate are mutually supportive. Glandular support in the skeletal body gives a bright clarity to our experience of bone. This integration of glandular and skeletal systems offers qualities to bone that can make our yoga postures look and feel lighter and more effortless. The glands are always suspending themselves and the tissues around them. They are in constant communication and relationship with one another. They levitate the denser structures of the body and create an anti-gravity feeling of support through our core. Continue reading

SIMPLE SEATED FORWARD BEND—Paschimottanasana

anya paschi mo feet copy

In forward bending we flex the spine. Forward-bends incorporate the shape and the mind of a deep bow. We yield into the earth and we yield to ourselves, our inner comfort, our navel. Yielding is a process of the whole-body-mind —a coming into active relationship with self, and the environment. The natural levity and spaciousness of core-awareness provides  a balance to the density of our fluid and yielding selves. Starting from neutral spine, we are simply present. The impetus to surrender or move inward begins the movement forward. Using a soft axial extension (elongated spine) we begin to slip our spine forward into it’s original shape of a soft C-curve. Core is moving forward, front body is condensing, and back body is elongating. There is deep comfort in this.

Check out this simple and easy method for approaching  paschimottanasana from dandasana.

As always, the key is to find your own just right expression of a forward-bend. Because of the  complications in our modern day lower-backs, it is important to learn the basics of forward-bending from a qualified teacher. A qualified teacher can assess the degree of flexion your spine can safely and comfortably allow.

The simple principles of integration apply to all students, as it is the integration of body-mind-spirit that gives the most profound benefit in all yoga asana.

ASSISTING RECOVERY IN EATING DISORDERS— Yoga and Developmental Movement Patterns

I teach Embodyoga@ as part of a program for the treatment of eating disorders. While Eating Disorders vary in their particulars they are all serious disturbances in the way we nourish ourselves. Eating disorders are coping mechanisms developed to control emotion, sensation and feeling and they have many adverse physical, psychological and social consequences. Eating disorders are complex sets of behaviors which often include co-morbidities such as anxiety, depression, trauma history, and body dysmorphic disorder. But at the root of all eating disorders is a dissociation from the body, a fundamental disconnect from our body-mind systems. The inability to nourish oneself is an inability to survive, a denial of the responsibility given to each of us with the great gift of the breath of life. Characteristics of dissociation include ignoring physiological signals from the body for hunger or satiation, or awareness of amounts of food that have been eaten.  Often present is a distorted perception of body image, body dysmorphic disorder, which can involve an obsession with “thinness”. irrational fear of weight gain, extreme efforts to manage weight or food intake, fixations on perceived physical flaws and a preoccupation with the unobtainable idealized bodies presented in the media. Continue reading