A post from my teacher Tony Sanchez.
When yoga teachers and students stop learning and develop bad habits [they] perpetuate ignorance in the practice of yoga. To change and improve established systems is part of our journey. We must rely on scientific knowledge to develop the best yoga practice possible. Many times old unproven yoga methods lead to disaster. We have the power and the access to new more powerful ways to take yoga into the future. Study, practice and research ways to improve your own yoga practice. Use scientific principles available to unfold the beauty and power of yoga. At the beginning of your yoga path, it is important to find a knowledgeable yoga teacher with no ulterior motives. Once your foundation is formed you are on your own.
I have felt myself change so drastically over the years since I began practicing yoga. It began with my body - physical health, strength and focus - and has shifted to my mind, my energy and my sense of self. As I begin to explore the mind and self with dedication, I perceive deep wells and vast horizons that I have never seen or realized before. My journey inward is beginning to fascinate me and give me great hope and understanding.
Although I have always been a quiet, introverted person, I haven't until now considered that I could develop my "self". I can study and explore the landscape that is the mind, senses and emotions seeking ever truer manifestations of who I am. But I need to make time to do this just like I have made time for the physical Posture practice. It is a new concept for me - exploring and developing inward - but one that holds great promise.
Today my Cobra practice reached a new level of focus and openness. I was able to hold onto my knees while putting my feet on my head. I have been practicing toward this variation for a few months now, but I have not had the combination of openness in my chest and upper back and strength in my back, legs and buttocks.
For 3 years I practiced only the regular Cobra, where the yogi builds back strength and spinal flexibility by lifting the shoulders and chest off the ground. This posture is one of the foundations of a yoga practice. I still practice it regularly.
When my strength and flexibility reached a good level about a year ago, I began to deepen the bend in my spine. This is the first of what I consider to be the Full Cobra backbends (I call this Full Cobra 1), where the yogi bends the spine as deeply as possible including the neck. It is different from the regular Cobra (above) in that significant arm strength is used here to bend backward deeply.
Full Cobra 2 achieves the opposite of Full Cobra 1 (above). While Full Cobra 1 uses arm strength to bend the back, Full Cobra 2 (sometimes we call it Flying Cobra) removes the arms and relies only on back strength. I still bend as deeply and completely as possible, but this posture creates incredible engagement in the whole spine and buttocks. It is intense and powerful and builds great strength.
To complete the body's energetic circuit and put the bottom of the feet to the top of the head, Full Cobra 3 (left) combines a bit of arm strength with bent knees. It stretches the entire front side of the body from the chin to the toes.
I will continue to practice all of these variations because each offers something different. As a group they strengthen the muscles of the back, improving posture. They compress the disks of the spine from behind, reducing the risk of herniated disks into the spinal column. They stretch the front side of the body, increasing emotional strength and courage. They stretch the abdomen, increasing intestinal movement and improving digestion and elimination. And they compress the adrenal glands, reducing stress.
If this is not the most valuable group of Postures, it is certainly one of them.
APANA & PRANA
Apana (Elimination Energy) is the energy in the body that eliminates waste through the lungs and excretory systems. It is vital in order to get rid of useless and detrimental elements in our bodies. When our bodies can effectively get rid of waste, we become significantly healthier.
The opposite energy, called Prana, is the Circulation Energy of our beating hearts, lungs and blood. We cultivate Circulation Energy by containing the energy in the body and not letting it disperse from us. Basically it is the opposite of Elimination Energy. Ideally we will balance these two energies so that we keep what strengthens us and get rid of what weakens us.
WIND REMOVING POSTURE
One of the great Postures for refining our Elimination Energy is called Wind Removing Posture (Pavanamuktasana). In some traditions it is even called Apanasana or Elimination Posture. The belly is compressed by squeezing the legs with the arms, and the body's energy is forced downward and out of a relaxed anus (often accompanied by 'wind,' hence the name of the posture).
"This is the essential difference between a spiritually minded person and a worldly person. Worldly doesn't mean that you have money or stature. Worldly means that you think the solution to your inner problems is in the world outside. You think that if you can change things outside, you'll be okay. But nobody has ever truly become okay by changing things outside. There's always the next problem. The only real solution is to take the seat of witness consciousness and completely change your frame of reference."
From "The Untethered Soul" by Michael A. Singer
Practicing yoga for the physical benefits is like playing guitar for the finger callouses.
Be self-controlled! Give! Be compassionate!
From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad V:2
I decided last week to do 30 days of Energy Control (Pranayama) practice in a row (I have been doing every other day for about 6 months). I do one hour first thing each morning, gradually working through balance, extension and retention.
I am trying to be very careful about my mental and energetic state as I practice. There is an ancient verse that says we must take more care in Energy Control exercises than with training a tiger. The practice has the ability to destroy our minds and bodies if we are not careful.
Yesterday I felt scattered all day, like my energy was in several directions. Today was the opposite; I have felt very focused but also drained. We'll see what tomorrow brings. I am feeling significant shifts in my energy and I'm curious what the next 3 weeks will bring.
Much yoga practice begins with mindful breathing; the relationship of breath and movement is an important one. Mindful breathing during Postures/Asanas (and life in general) is the first step in our Energy Control (Pranayama) practice.
There are four ways that we can relate our Postures and our Breath: we can 1) move the body and the breath, 2) hold the body still while moving the breath, 3) hold the body still while holding the breath, and 4) move the body while holding the breath. Each has its own benefits.
1) Movement the Body and the Breath is the most commonly known "yoga" practice in the west. It is called Vinyasa (especially in the Krishnamacharya lineage) - each movement of the body is linked with a complimentary inhale or exhale. This category of Posture practice begins the process of breath awareness, links the mind to the body, begins to purify the energy channels of the body and therefore generates tremendous energy and strength.
2) Holding the Body Still While Moving the Breath is powerful for the energy body and mind. It creates a "lock" with the entire body, shifting circulation and endocrine flow as well as strengthening the nervous system. When holding the body still while moving the breath, the body's energy circulates strongly. This category of Posture practice builds great concentration, focus and quiets the mind.
3) Holding the Body Still While Holding the Breath is often called a "lock" or "bandha." It creates vivid stillness in the mind and connects the energy of the body to the energy of the universe. This practice is used to purify the body on ever more subtle levels and to draw focus to the motion of the mind so it may be stilled. After we still the body and breath, stillness or Concentration (Dharana) of the mind is the next step on the path of Yoga.
4) Holding the Breath While Moving the Body takes great awareness and control of the body, energy and mind. It is the most advanced of these four practices. Once we can hold the Breath in stillness along with the Body (as in #3), we may decide to deepen our energetic control by moving the body without letting the breath or mind move. This practice creates powerful force in the physical and energetic bodies that can push up against a stilled mind and create energy disturbances if the yogi is not careful. If the mind can remain still and clear, the yogi deepens his or her connection with the divine.
Today I listened through a recording of Tony leading us through the complete Ghosh series. He led us through it a few times during our training and, with all the posture variations (140 positions) and individual instruction it takes about 3 1/2 hours. As I listen back to Tony's guidance, one thing in particular strikes me. He is relatively brief in the postures.
Tony often counts while we practice: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 at frustratingly unpredictable tempos, but in general he doesn't make us hold the postures for super long. (Though I must mention that some postures felt like forever. Two in particular are the 2nd expression of Chair and Balancing Stick.) As I have developed my own practice, finding my own expressions of the postures and sequences, I find myself spending longer and longer in each posture. Often 10 breaths, somewhere around 1 minute per posture. Tony's counts are more in the 10-20 second range.
I realize that there is a difference between focusing on each individual posture, like I have been in my own practice, and focusing on the practice as a whole. Perhaps we don't need to get each posture perfect or even to its deepest expression. We only need to put our body in the position for a reasonable period of time, not too long, and then move on. Over the course of a couple hours and a few dozen postures, the cumulative effect of the postures takes shape.
A complete practice is the sum of many postures. Perhaps it is better to do 50 postures, as in the Master's Core System, for 20 seconds apiece than 20 or 30 postures for a minute apiece.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga