Moving from the Spine

The spinal column is an incredible structure that has a dual nature. It is a strong central axis that supports the whole trunk. Yet the spine is also mobile, allowing the trunk to bend forward, sideways, backward, and to rotate. In the practice of yoga asanas, we explore side bends, forward extensions, twists and backbends that can help create an optimal balance of spinal stability and mobility.

When we sit to begin asana class, or practice pranayama or meditation, we search for the balance of the head over the tailbone. A different experience arises when we look to balance the tailbone under the head. This ongoing relationship between the head and the tailbone is one way to have a clearer experience of the spine itself. We may seek to create the greatest possible distance between the head and the tailbone, or bend in any direction we choose with spinal elongation. Awareness of the head-tail relationship helps us know where the spine is in space, and how we can optimize spinal decompression and length.

In Iyengar Yoga, we move from the outer to the inner and from the gross to the subtle. To move from the spine is more subtle than to move from the trunk. Therefore, we can initially think of the spinal as a receiver rather than a doer of action. We can access the spine through the use of the arms and legs, thinking of the limbs as actors and the spine as a receiver. We can also access specific portions of the spine through other body areas, using the abdomen to move the sacrum, the waist to move the lumbar spine, the rib cage to move the thoracic spine, and the head to move the cervical spine.

The dynamic relationship between actor and receiver, or benefactor and beneficiary, is a fundamental principle for the exploration of asana as taught by Prashant Iyengar. A few examples:

• By the legs, for the spine.
• By the rib cage, for the spine.
• By the breath, for the spine.
• By the mind, for the spine.

With practice, consciousness can penetrate to the spine itself, so we can begin to experience the spine as the actor and other aspects of ourselves as the receivers or beneficiaries.

• By the spine, for the legs.
• By the spine, for the rib cage.
• By the spine, for the breath.
• By the spine, for the mind.

The possibilities for exploration are infinite.

To get some insight into this exploration join Karen February 20-21 for two special workshops sponsored by the Yoga Center of Lawrence, Kansas. Karen will teach Breathing through the Asanas on Saturday and Moving from the Spine on Sunday.

“By the spine, for the mind.” This suggestion is an interesting and powerful one. The teachings of yoga suggest that the foundation for a stable, attentive mind is a stable, elongated and upright spine. But where does the body end and the mind begin? As B.K.S. Iyengar explains in Light on Life, the divisions of our being into body, breath and mind, or into five layers of anatomy, physiology, mind, intelligence and soul, are really only conveniences – models to help us look at and understand ourselves better.

But experience is unified. Concerning these various aspects of ourselves, he writes “We should imagine them as blending from one into the other like the colors of the rainbow.” This week in your practice, explore heightened spinal awareness as a way to learn more about all aspects of the radiant rainbow of your being.

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The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a theme that never grows old. In his work on the power of myth, Joseph Campbell brought the understanding of the hero’s journey into popular consciousness. The archetypal journey toward integration and wholeness can be found in many contemporary stories, like Star Wars or in a Marvel comic, as well as in timeless sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita.

In the first stage of the hero’s life, there is isolation and a feeling of being disconnected from others and the world. In fiction this is represented by the hero being an orphan, or having had their home planet destroyed, or having been abandoned by their family. The hero is alone.

Then something occurs to spur a journey. The hero meets their mentor, whether it is Yoda, or Lord Krishna, and begins to train. The old life and priorities are left behind, and the hero begins on the road to their true destiny.

Once training is complete, the hero must go on a quest, most often in service of the greater good. In devoting herself to service, the hero must learn what her unique gifts and strengths are and hone these abilities in order to face the obstacles on the journey.  In the process of serving others, the hero finds out who he really is, and understands the meaning of his life.

While most of us don’t have light sabers or superpowers, we do have enormous capacity to develop ourselves, both for own well-being, and for the benefit of others. In a sense, each one of us is on our own hero’s journey to learn what we are uniquely suited to do in this world, to achieve personal fulfillment and integration. In yoga philosophy, finding this ideal life path is called seeking our dharma.

There are several yoga poses that contain the root word “vir.” Virabhadrasana is the Warrior, who trains body and mind in order to serve and protect others. Virasana is literally the Hero Pose. One of the pillars of yoga practice is virya, or vigor. In our yoga, we must work with courage and valor, making a heroic effort to move forward despite the impediments that we face.

In yoga practice, it can help to realize that the effort required is heroic, and that the aims of yoga are bigger than life. Like our friends on screen, in literature and in sacred stories, we will face problems, and have to search deeply within ourselves to solve them.

At some point in many of these stories, the hero is close to giving up. This might be symbolized by losing one’s tools and possessions or being alone in a dark forest or cave. But here, in the heart of darkness, the aspirant journeys inward and finds an inner power and light previously unknown.

In our inward journey of yoga, we seek the light within. We will need courage, faith, sharp memory and awakened awareness to reach the goal. But the fulfillment of the path – illuminated joy and boundless bliss – await us.










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The Path is the Goal

I am not sure when I first heard this phrase. It expresses the idea that spiritual practice – mindfulness of our thoughts, words and actions in the present – is not just a technique to create some future benefit, but it is the benefit, right now in the present moment.

Of course our behavior in the present will determine the nature of our experience in the future. Yet in that unknown future, we will still be on the path, mindfully observing body, breath and mind as we connect to the Universal Divine Spirit. I like calling this practice being in a “state of yoga.”

What do I mean by a “state of yoga?” A state of yoga is one of relaxed attention. Being in a yogic state means we are fully present with the moment as it is. Yoga also means integration, so we explore the connection among various aspects of our being. Presence, awareness, mindfulness, relaxed attention, integration. These are all words for yoga.

The question then arises, when we are practicing yoga asanas, are we actually in a state of yoga? Or do we have the belief that we can only experience a yogic state in some time in the future, once we are “better” at the poses?

In a detail oriented method such as Iyengar Yoga, this is an easy mistake to make. We can get so caught up in improving the physical aspects of the pose, that we forget that yoga is ultimately about the inward journey. The poses are a method, not the goal, and they exist as a means to explore the deeper aspects of our being – the thinking mind, the intuitive spiritual intelligence, and the essential core of our being.

When we hear about this inward journey, we could easily conclude that we are not advanced enough to think about those subtle aspects of experience, but then we would be forgetting that the path is the goal. We would be confusing the techniques of yoga with the experience of yoga.

Having a yogic or inward or integrated experience is not dependent on the range of motion or perfect alignment of a pose. It is dependent on cultivating presence, and a balance of relaxation with focus on what we are doing, in this case, a yoga pose.

We should not wait for some unknown time in the future, when we are “better” at yoga, to experience yoga. Yoga is in the now. Yoga means being awake, present with whatever we are doing, content and mindful with the moment as it is. When we bring those qualities to our practice of yoga postures, we also learn to apply the same approach to the art of living.



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Yoga as Philosophy, Science and Art

B.K.S. Iyengar often said “When I practice, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.” These three aspects of yoga correspond with the three fundamental attributes of the Divine, which are Sivam, goodness, Satnam, truth, and Sundaram, beauty.

Awareness of these three aspects of yoga and of the Universal Divine Spirit can help bring balance to the way we practice.

The goal of philosophy is to achieve a state of goodness, and to develop an ethical framework for living. The term Sivam refers to that which is auspicious and positive. How can our yoga practice lead us toward a state of goodness?

We might consider whether our practice is motivated primarily by concerns of the ego, such as accomplishing a pose, constant improvement, or gaining praise or prestige. Could we instead approach the practice as a means of creating a storehouse of positive feelings, harmony and balance with ourselves? An auspicious yoga practice would be one without attachment to outcomes.

The goal of science is to seek truth, Satnam, and to learn about the nature of reality. A yoga practice can certainly be much like a scientist’s laboratory, in which we use trial and error to gain understanding.

What does it mean to be a seeker of truth in the way we practice? Perhaps we can become more observant of how a pose develops over time, and what approaches to a pose are the most effective. We can learn to be honest with ourselves about how to practice in a way that is appropriate to our unique condition and needs.

Finally, the appreciation of beauty, Sundaram, brings joy. We can approach our yoga practice with the intention to bring grace and elegance to each pose.

Postures do not need to be perfect to be beautiful. When we appreciate the beauty of nature, we may experience feelings of wonder and transcendence, yet we don’t demand that the sunset be perfect. Our own body is, of course, part of nature, and a miracle of creation, just as beautiful as the ocean or a mountain range.

One way to play with the aesthetic aspect of a pose is to pay attention to the transitions. How smooth, graceful and fluid can the movement be into and out of a pose? This consideration immediately changes the experience of practice to one that includes the idea of artistry.

In our teaching at Green Tara Yoga, we hope to bring the threefold search for goodness, truth and beauty into our approach. Visit our Schedule/Registration page and join us for a class soon!

Take a look at your approach to yoga practice. Are you more of a philosopher, scientist or artist? Try putting on some different hats and see how your practice grows. The path of yoga is an inward journey, and through it, we can all experience the good, the true and the beautiful.

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