Monthly Archives: April 2012

Practicing yoga outdoors: the scorpion’s sting

Maybe it’s lingering inspiration from Earth Day or the magic of spring, but lately I’ve been taking my yoga practice outdoors. Practicing in nature is a doorway to the very origins of asana. Yoga’s roots lie in the early shamanistic traditions of India (later influencing and being influenced by Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism). It is said that the rishis (seers) closely observed nature, and that this is why yoga postures celebrate the earth and its life forms.

Balance next to an ancient juniper—whose roots penetrate rock and whose branches withstand lightning and withering heat—and you begin to understand the essence of Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Feet root into stone as leg muscles engage, creating stability and a sense of groundedness, while the upper body rises toward the sky, sparking a dynamic polarity between earth and heaven.

Yoga postures celebrate the earth and its life forms.

Lie belly-down on sun-warmed sandstone in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and you’ll stimulate the body’s fire center, the area of the body where digestion and assimilation take place. We take in not only nourishment but also experiences, and it’s here at the solar plexus where we process both food and feelings.

In the controlled environment of a studio or home, we can easily practice ekagrata—one-pointedness—by fixing the gaze (drishti) on a single, unmoving point, perhaps a houseplant or the area between the eyebrows. For each asana, there’s also a primary physical action to focus on. In Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), we focus on lifting the tailbone. At the same time, the complexity of the pose teaches us to scan the body field lightly: Have the shoulders begun to creep up around the ears? Are the heels on the floor before the hamstrings are ready?

Even in relatively simple poses, it can be challenging to maintain multiple points and levels of attention. In Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold), the heart center may be lifting, even as the feet flop like dead fish, dropped from the field of awareness. The challenge then becomes making adjustments to the body–engaging the feet, lifting the ribcage–without disturbing the field.

Taking your asana outdoors requires a different awareness. Where a pebble underneath the ball of the foot can become a nagging distraction, dharana (concentration) must be especially strong. And yet, the field of awareness needs to extend even further: A sudden breeze can affect balance; a rocky surface might injure knee joints. Blowing dust, a passing bird, a laser-like shaft of sunlight–the natural world is full of surprises.

Once, while I was practicing asana in the shelter of a small canyon, Mother Nature surprised me with one of her “teaching moments.” I don’t take a mat with me to practice outdoors, preferring the grippy feel of sandstone beneath my feet. The canyon, reddish slickrock sculpted by water,  was so comfortable and peaceful  that I was able to focus deeply on each asana. Only vaguely did I notice a sensation on the sole of my foot. Later, that spot burned fiercely and for days afterward, it ached and ached.

I’d been stung by a scorpion.

Now, I could spin all kinds of stories about having a Scorpio moon or, as in the old teaching fable of the scorpion and frog, I could blame scorpion for his aggressive nature (though most likely I stepped on him first).

But, as is usually the case, the simplest explanation is the best. The scorpion sting reminded me that awareness needs to shift with the environment. The outdoor environment is different than the controlled environment indoors. Walking an urban street calls for a different level of awareness than strolling down a country lane.

We can be centered and focused, but we are creatures of the world, and we need to be mindful of our place within it. The scorpion could have been work, or family, or the car next to me on the freeway–if I’m not in tune with my surroundings, I may experience consequence. It may be as gentle as a reminder from a loved one, or it may be a scorpion’s sting.

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What is householder yoga?

Yoga is often translated as “union.” The Sanskrit root, yuj, means to yoke or join. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines the journey of Samadhi, becoming one with Source, in 196 brief sayings. In actual practice, yogis find that the journey requires navigating a vast continuum of opposing forces. These polar opposites create tension, not just in the body but also beyond the body.

During asana, we are often acutely aware of physical tension (think of the stretch through the hamstrings during Paschimottanasana, the full forward bend), but we experience tension in the mind and spirit as well. For example, we may long for the simplified life of the sannyasin–the contemplative sheltered within the walls of the ashram–but most of us live in the everyday world of monthly budgets, to-do lists, computers and cell phones, dirty dishes, etc. Though we strive to rise above the distractions of daily life, we can also get caught up in its many pleasures … and then often feel guilt when we do.

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen–who has also been an ordained Zen monk and notorious ladies’ man–understands the push-pull of the spiritual journey.  In “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” he gently chides: “You live your life as if it’s real.” This echoes what Patanjali wrote some two thousand years ago, that the world as we know it is an illusion of our own making, and that true peace lies beyond.  Or as Cohen writes, “You lose your grip, and then you slip into the masterpiece.” This, in a nutshell, is the yogic path– losing the self (the grip of individual ego) to find the Self (the ultimate reality or masterpiece).

But, unlike the contemplative, we who travel the path as householders can live a “thousand kisses deep,” using the experiences of everyday life to discover the divine. Seen though the lens of yoga,  the everyday becomes nuanced and layered with meaning. Isn’t there something transcendent about a freshly baked loaf of bread? Or a flower opened to the light? A colorful sunset or purring cat? Though we can get snared by the senses, we can also use them as a springboard.

Ah, but what about a garden of weeds? A streaked window or sink full of dishes?  Even  the dullest household task is an opportunity for practicing presence or mindfulness. As Swami Sivananda Saraswati instructed students, “Put your heart, mind, intellect, and soul even to your smallest acts. This is the secret of success.”

Historically, the system of yoga wasn’t meant only for the contemplative. And today it isn’t solely the realm of the gym rat. Sure, you can meditate for peace and enlightenment and “do yoga” to gain tight buns or washboard abs, but it’s within that vast ground in the middle, between the sannyasin and the gymnasium, that most of us reside. This is grihastha dharma, the middle path of the householder.

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