ASHTANGA VINYASA—A PERSONAL STORY

Healing, Discernment, and Resolution

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HEALING

It’s 1985 and I’m living and working at Center for Yoga in the Larchmont District of Los Angeles, CA. Ganga White was the owner and director and Ana Forrest was the very young primary teacher. Ganga was, as he clarified at the time, “The keeper of the dream” supporting the very existence of the Center and Ana was well…Ana—the wild, wonderful, also iconoclastic, creative, exciting, and driving explorer and teacher of asana. Good times. Yoga was saving my life and I was in love with the practice, my teachers, the community, and the shared explorations.

My asana studies with Ana during this time had taken my practice to a place where basically I could do most of the postures. And I could do them pretty well. The shapes were easy, felt graceful, still felt nurturant to my body, and washed depression from my mind. I was a bit fanatical, but not about a certain system or way of practice. Ana, Ganga and all of us as a group were open minded. We were explorers. We were serious.

A friend of Ganga’s, Danny Paradise came to the yoga center. A traveling Ashtanga teacher, Danny presented a class to a group of us at the Center for Yoga.

I was already a strong and able practitioner, as were many of us, and we were able to go through the entire Primary Series in that session that must have lasted about two and half hours.

I was completely blown away by the practice, the seamlessness of it, its power, and the sequence itself. I had heard that part of the power of Ashtanga was the sequence of the postures. As we went through the postures I was able to feel the movement of pranic forces progressively toning, pulsing, and balancing, especially in my pelvic region. As we progressed through the janusirsasanas and the marichiasanas, I could feel the sequence of postures balance and shift the pranic and sensational realities of my pelvis. Muscle by muscle, posture by posture, small precise inner touch—very much like a key making its way fully into a lock. It was a fascinating and deeply satisfying process to observe.

The ten breaths seated at the finish of practice seemed to take 10 minutes to do. Lying on the floor in savasana my body began to shake wildly. I wasn’t completely sure, so I opened my eyes, lifted my head and looked at it. It wasn’t moving. I lay back down and surrendered to the vibration. A huge glow developed in my second chakra area and spread. It was pleasant and intriguing.

Prior to that class I had been trying to become pregnant for nine years. That very month I conceived my first child. Putting everything together, I feel this was definitely not coincidence, but the direct result of that very first Primary Series practice.

I gave birth to my son, James and continued Ashtanga Vinyasa as my primary practice for another ten years. Although Pattabhi was the leader of the tradition, I chose one Ashtanga teacher, Richard Freeman. He was clearly brilliant and I trusted him. I felt that Richard was teaching the very cutting edge of everything I thought was about to happen with yoga in the West. Richard brought the poetry and beauty into the physical practice that was beyond anything I had experienced. My excitement about the practice, as presented  by Richard, was very strong. I was utterly committed.

I was a great fan of Second Series and not at all a fan of Third. I remember thinking after practicing Third Series a couple of times that I didn’t even want to be that physically strong. It just didn’t seem to correlate with my aims in yoga. Besides, I had already begun to question the continuing validity of the system for me.

DISCERNMENT AND DISCRIMINATION— WHEN ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Around 1988, I was beginning to question my practice. I noticed that the practice didn’t change how I felt anymore and wasn’t really doing much for the clarity of awareness I was looking for either. I could suspend my breath for a long time. That seemed like a good thing based on what I read, but what was it doing for me? It clearly had helped at one time, but it just didn’t seem to be offering tangible results anymore.

I also noticed that it took a lot of time, energy, and focus. Quite often it made me tired. I strongly suspected that it wasn’t useful anymore. I continued to practice, for years. It is difficult to say no and to let go of something that almost works and even more so, serves one’s ego very well. What if I was no longer recognized to be “good” at yoga?  What if I didn’t know how to define myself anymore? What if I got FAT?

It was not an easy process to let go of the lure of Ashtanga practice. Long story short, I did it. It was around 2002 by now. For me, more than anything else it was the ego hook of the whole game. In my case my entire self concept was built around my yoga abilities. But, as a serious practitioner of yoga, I knew that if I wanted to go deeper, I would have to be willing to take the leap.

RESOLUTION

I suffered through the trials of giving up the ego gratification that had defined me for so many years. The worst of all possible things for me happened; I gained weight. My yoga practice became more rolling around on the floor than traditional asana. Very hard times for me, but my sense was that powerful new doors were opening based on my willingness to let go of who I thought I was in order to become more of who I actually might be.

By giving up the known, we open ourselves to something more rewarding.

It’s the old adage, one may be afraid to leave the dingy shack because of one’s inability to see the beauty that is waiting just out of vision, beyond the hill.

I am grateful for all of the developmental processes in my life. I am grateful for my years of Ashtanga, the great yoga teachers of differing traditions that have helped shape my understanding and practice of yoga, and to the woman who changed my path in yoga forever and showed me what is possible, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

There’s a lot I would like to share about all of this and more, but this is enough for now. thank you for reading.

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

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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

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

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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.

A NEW LOOK AT ALIGNMENT IN YOGA

Recently, the yoga community at large has taken up a more critical look at what the concept of alignment actually means in the context of yoga asana. This is a great conversation to have. So many of us have been practicing and teaching for decades now and are confronted daily by the ways that popular rules of alignment contradict one another and are often causing more problems than they solve.

Many of the problems we see in joints, muscles, and ligaments derive from our own mistaken assuredness that we have the answers for how we (and our students) should move. Most of our instructions have been based on the musculoskeletal system. We have precise rules, many contradicting one another, and still we have a lot of injuries, and witness a lot of wear and tear on joints of the longest time practitioners. Perhaps we have accepted a false premise. Let’s look at the term and its connotations:

align |əˈlīn| verb1 [with object]

  • place or arrange (things) in a straight line
  • put (things) into correct or appropriate relative positions
  • [no object] lie in a straight line, or in correct relative positions

alignment |əˈlīnmənt| noun1

  • arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative position
  • the act of aligning parts of a machine:oil changes, lube jobs, and wheel alignments.

 

Alignment as We Know It Doesn’t Work

How we think about things matters. The term alignment itself conjures up straight lines, correct angles, mechanical movement, and positional concerns. Both align and alignment clearly connote these qualities. Even if you know better, you will be affected by your ingrained understanding of the words. The idea of “straight lines”, “align [with object]”, and even “appropriate relative position”, miss the mark for considering what is healthy human support for movement.

Continue reading