Tag Archives: asana

The art of letting go

In asana, the limb or aspect of yoga most commonly practiced today in the West, we learn to surrender fully into a pose. When asana is practiced with awareness, we are not just physically stretching, releasing, and opening, but also detaching from egoic I-ness to become dispassionate observers. The consciousness lightly moves from one body part to the next, sensing areas of tension and responding by relaxing or letting go, bypassing thoughts, comparisons, reactions. By developing discernment and fine-tuning the awareness, the body becomes the teacher.

Because asana is how most people experience yoga, it can become a gateway for deeper practices, and for integrating the eight limbs and other yogic principles with daily life. The Yoga Sutras (I:12 through I:16) tell us that vairagya (non-attachment) and abhyasa (practice) are essential to going beyond the egoic mind and recognizing true self. For example, as January stretches on, many of us find our New Year resolutions falling by the wayside. A common response is to push harder, to wrestle with the mind to overcome resistance or to “think positive thoughts.”

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The story of the elephant-headed boy, Ganesha, is a metaphor

for cutting off the egoic mind.

But working with the mind, the yoga sages have said, is like trying to tame a wild beast. I think of it like the game Whac-a-Mole. Just as the moles win every contest, so do the thoughts whenever you challenge them. Zero in on one thought to zap it and another quickly takes its place. It’s more effective to bypass the thoughts altogether, to let go and metaphorically “lose your mind.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s no magic wand or instant solution; it’s all practice. But every day holds a multitude of opportunities for practicing non-attachment, and it’s through practice (abhyasa) that we realize non-attachment (vairaghya). Even something as simple and natural as the breath can be a teacher. Before every inhalation, there must be an exhalation—a letting go. If you don’t fully release the old breath, there isn’t enough room for the new, the in-spiration. Simple, yes? But also profound.

Make your New Year’s resolution or practice as automatic as breathing. Let go. Don’t think so much. Lace up your running shoes without dwelling on how cold it is outside, before feelings of resistance take root. Do the dishes before they pile up and become a trigger for displeasure. Walk into your office with a mind like a clear, still pond, free of resentment or expectations.

Too hard? Then return to your asana practice and let it be your teacher. Stop obsessing about your hamstrings or the person on the mat next to you and focus on your breath—especially the exhalation.

Notice how profound these little victories are and build on them, reinforcing healthy non-attachment. Go ahead—what have you got to lose? Except, perhaps, your mind.

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Honoring the Mother

This Sunday, we honor mothers. Relatively young as holidays go, Mother’s Day dates to 1907, when an American woman held a memorial service for her mother. She campaigned to make the second Sunday in May a nationally recognized holiday, and in 1914, her lobbying paid off … at least for greeting card companies, floral shops, candy makers, etc. She went on to protest the empty commercialism of the holiday, but by then it was a wrap … in pink ribbon and tulle, of course.

Here in the states, we give moms flowers, candy, jewelry, and 140 million Mother’s Day cards, spending nearly $2 billion on flowers alone. But if we look beyond the commercialism, we see that there is a long tradition across cultures celebrating motherhood, often in springtime. Fertility, renewal, and childbirth are associated with the feminine aspect of the universe, along with Earth and its satellite, the moon.

Roses have been associated with love, beauty, and hidden knowledge.

We find male and female symbolism throughout yoga. Samkhya, one of the traditional philosophical systems of India, and the foundation of yoga and ayurveda, is based on a dualistic view of the cosmos: pure Spirit (male) and the creative force (female). In asana, we honor the feminine with Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose), forward bends such as Upavista Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold), Balasana (Child’s Pose), and most especially, Salamba Sarvangasana, the shoulderstand, considered the queen of all asana.

There is a cooling, relaxing element to feminine asanas, which focus on the parasympathetic division of the nervous system, our “rest and digest” state. Left-nostril breathing, the pranayama known as chandra bhedana (“moon passing through”) also cools the physical body and is excellent for treating sleeplessness or a restless mind. All these practices are nurturing and regenerative—qualities that we associate with mother love. More than ever, we need these qualities in order to find balance in our fast-paced, thought-dominant society.

Earth herself is nurturing and patient, endlessly giving—she holds us in her arms during Savasana. She supports and grounds us during meditation and pranayama. Prakriti—the feminine aspect of the cosmos—is the mother of us all, shaping our experiences and connecting us by our humanness.

On Mother’s Day, we honor those who’ve embodied the feminine aspect in our lives. Along with the flowers, the candy, the cards, we can also celebrate by remembering the creative, regenerative power that is essential to our earthly experience.

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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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