Monday, June 25, 2012

Asana Research Lab: Paschimottanasana

Where "B" equals your Butt.

My 5 days with Chuck Miller (see my last post) encouraged me to step back and take a look at all the fundamental postures of the Ashtanga practice and ruthlessly assess the quality with which I'd been practicing them. One of the postures I decided I needed to reel in a bit and rebuild from the ground up was my Paschimottanasana (POSH-chee-moh-tan-AHS-anna), or seated forward bend. Often when we're striving to achieve what we think is the end posture — usually what we've seen a very advanced practitioner demonstrate in a book, video or website — we rush through or skip over the fundamentals and jump right into a simulacrum of the gross expression of the pose. 

Sketch from Jérôme Terrier's great Flickr stream of yoga drawings

In Paschimottanasana, this often translates into rounding the upper back, hunching the shoulders up by the ears and pulling ourselves forward, reaching the face desperately towards the feet. While a seated forward bend with a round spine can feel good, it's not the goal of this posture. In Paschimottanasana we're looking to stretch the hamstrings and spine, extending the crown of the head and the heels like two rays extending from the vertex of the hips, diminishing the degree of the angle as we progress further into the posture.

A few tips to follow when working mindfully on this pose:
  1. First, sit with legs extended and plant the heels into the ground.
  2. As in all seated forward bends, keep the foot active but not reaching back towards the shin as in Dandasana. From the heel, reach forward with the balls of the feet, toes spreading, almost like you were wearing invisible stilettos.
  3. Keeping the quadriceps active and knees lifted will allow the hamstrings to release.
  4. Think about lengthening the leg from the planted heels to the front of the sit bones. This requires a forward tilt of the pelvis. You might need to sit on the front of a block or folded towel at first if your hamstrings are especially tight.
  5. Focus on rolling the upper thighs inwards, spreading the sit bones and dropping the pelvic bone towards the floor, tailbone lifting.
  6. Draw the spine long up out of the rooted sit bones to the crown of the head, slightly tucking the chin and lifting the heart.
  7. Think about moving the sternum — not the head — forward out over the extended legs, keeping the chin in and neck long. 
Additionally, give the exercises in this video a try. I found them super helpful.

Most important to remember: it's not how far you go! It's about doing the work that you need to do, and being honest, uncompromising and gentle with yourself while you do it.

Additional Reading

This excerpt from Gregor Maehle's book on Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most beautiful passages I've ever read concerning the interconnectedness of our physical bodies and our emotional and etheric bodies. I highly recommend buying his book if you are interested in deepening your practice!

Psoas — The Seat of the Soul
Excerpt from Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy by Gregor Maehle 

The hip flexor muscle group includes the rectus femoris of the quadriceps, the sartorius, the tensor fascia latae, and the deeply internal psoas muscle. Continuing to contract the rectus femoris after it has tilted the hips in a forward bend causes it to bunch up in the front of the hip and prevent one from working deeper into the posture. The psoas muscle originates from the sides of the body of T12 (the lst thoracic vertebra), where it touches the diaphragm and all five lumbar vertebrae. It runs along the back of the abdominal cavity (the front of the spine) through the pelvis and inserts at a mount on the inside of the thighbone (femur), the lesser trochanter. It flexes the hip joint and laterally rotates the femur in the process.
When the thigh is fixed, as in standing and seated postures, the psoas is flexed. Ida Rolf states that a healthy psoas should elongate during flexion and fall back toward the spine. It is necessary to release and lengthen the psoas, once the hips are tilted forward, in order to deepen any forward-bending postures.
 The superficial muscles of the body relax completely after they have been worked, but the dep muscles always retain a certain tension, even at rest. This is especially true of muscles that originate on the spine, like the psoas. They are therefore prone to spasm if worked intensely. The conscious relaxing of these muscles is as important as exercising them.
The psoas is the deepest muscle in the body. Its importance is such that it has been described by some as the "seat of the soul." To see the psoas in action one has to imagine the graceful gait of African or Indian women carrying large water containers on their heads. To do this, the head has to maintain a continuous forward motion without any sudden jerks. The movement is only possible with a strong but relaxed psoas muscle. The psoas swings the pelvis forward and backward like a cradle. This swinging action initiates the movement of the legs with the rectus femoris (the large hip flexor at the front of the thigh) only coming into action well after the psoas. The swinging of the pelvis creates a wavelike motion up the spine, which keeps the spine healthy and vibrant, and the mind centered in the heart. If you have ever tried to walk with a large object balancing on your head you know how difficult this makes it to follow the tangents of the mind. Connecting with the core of the body (the psoas) shifts the attention from the mind to the heart — this is why the psoas is regarded as the seat of the soul. 
The other extreme can be observed when we watch an army march. Soldiers are required to keep the psoas hardened. Being constantly shortened, the muscle spasms and is weakened. In the military attention posture, when the chest is swelled, one naturally dips into the low back, which also weakens the psoas muscle. When marching, the pelvis is arrested and the thighs are aggressively thrust upward and forward. This movement only uses the rectus femoris. The spine is frozen, and this keeps the soldiers' attention in their minds. In this state the mind can more easily be convinced to be non-compassionate to fellow human beings, who are instead labeled as the enemy.
If we all walked with our psoas active and our spines caressed with the wavelike motion this produces, our minds would possibly arrive at a state of silence. we would then see every human being as part of the same consciousness that animates us all. One of the reasons our Western culture has conquered much of the world with its arms is that we have abandoned natural awareness and have fallen under the tyranny of the mind. Yoga calls for restoring this awareness, which draws us to naturally abide in nonviolence. Nonviolence becomes a non-imposed ethical law.
As one starts  practicing yoga it is very important to abandon the Western aggressive conquering attitude of wanting to derive an advantage out of yoga, but rather to approach the postures from a deep surrender into what is already here. All forward bends inspire this attitude. If, rather than developing yet another wish — such as to lengthen the hamstrings, which actually shorten and contract with greed — we let go into the knowledge that everything we may ask for is already here, the hamstrings will release by themselves. Ambition shortens hamstrings.


Friday, June 15, 2012

"Are you ready to be a beginner?"

Me and Chuck. Do I look happy? Because I was.
This was the question that Chuck Miller asked us again and again over the course of the 5 days I got to study with him at Babylon Yoga in Vancouver. It's an important question that forced us to re-evaluate our personal practices and our reasons for showing up to these workshops. In effect, he was asking us if we were willing to tear down the practices that we had built over months and years, letting go of our ideas about progress or achievement, and slowly, painstakingly start over — assessing with an unflinching eye all of our bad habits, lazy tendencies, misalignments, and ego-driven striving.

It was tough, tough work. But so incredibly rewarding.

Even for me, as a relative newcomer to Ashtanga, it was difficult to mentally let go of any notions I had about how far I am in the primary series and to be exactly where I need to be in order to do the work that I need to do. Am I over-flexing my back in Paschimottanasana to compensate for tight hamstrings, reaching for my feet with my chin because that's what I think the pose should look like? Is this where I need to be, or am I ignoring the real work I need to do because I'm striving to go farther...maybe farther than I should? It's very humbling to admit to your shortcomings and it takes a lot of control to back up and fix what you've been avoiding — but isn't that why we're doing yoga? Chuck reinforced in us the idea that these "shortcomings" (i.e., stiff back, tight hamstrings, weak arms) are in fact "gifts", as they illuminate the places where we need to work to unravel tension, release blockages and repair our bodies to a "yoga normal" state.

Chuck working his magic on another "beginner".

Ashtanga yoga, at its core, is a tool for self transformation. It's not a display of our physical attributes. It's not even physical exercise. The vigorous exercise and resulting physique is a byproduct of an intense process that we choose to engage in to clear mental obstacles through the conscious linking of breath and movement. Letting go of the idea that progress means obtaining the next asana in the sequence is incredibly liberating, and as this started to really sink in (around the third day), I felt a massive shift in approach to my own practice occur. After hours of painful, intensely focussed work on the absolute basics, I had never felt like — or been ready to be — such a complete beginner.

I'm not going to go into all the details of what he showed us this past week — it turned out to be a week of incredibly personal inner transformation and growth — but I will encourage you to seek him out if he's teaching anywhere near you and allow him to show you how you can take your practice deeper, not farther. I'll give you a hint though — the answer lies in that very first pose, Sama-sthiti.



Thursday, June 7, 2012

Meeting the Witness

Even comic books in India are spiritual.

It's been a very busy month! With my teacher training wrapping up and gearing up to lead my first classes at the end of this month, along with the usual activities of everyday life, there has been a lot to keep my mind and body busy, busy, busy — so much so that I truly relish the moments of stillness I can find throughout the day, whether it's on my mat in Savasana, in the bath after a gruelling yoga practice or sitting by the fire after a day of sledgehammer swinging.

During the drive to and from the yoga studio (about 20 minutes each way), I try to use that time to catch up on the few podcasts I still listen to. One that I look forward to every week is Ram Dass' new podcast Here and Now. Each podcast interweaves segments from classic Ram Dass lectures with stories about the host Rhagu Markus' own journey from Montréal to India and subsequent spiritual transformation. They are wonderfully produced and Ram Dass has a unique gift for communicating some heady esoteric subject matter in a way that is very engaging and relatable.

This week's episode (ep. 7 "The Veil") deals with the idea of inviting "The Witness" into your daily life, and learning to disassociate your true self (or, Atman) from your thoughts, actions and body. The idea is that when you are able to observe your thoughts and actions without judgement, you are "witnessing" them from that which is not the ego, but that which is able to observe the ego: your true self. This practice has been incredibly useful for me in dealing with various issues that I had wanted to overcome for many years, but couldn't figure out how. For instance, I recognized that at times I had a tendency to lose my patience and get angry even when it wasn't justified, but I didn't know why or how I could change it. I just knew that I desperately wanted to get over it and be done with it for good!

I think the breakthrough came for me during my first session in an isolation tank. If you've never experienced a float tank, it's basically a large metal egg that you climb into naked, close the door, and submerge yourself in a very dense salt water solution that is the exact temperature of your body, and float. The effect is one of total sensory deprivation. Your body doesn't feel the water, you're in complete and utter darkness and the only sounds are those produced by your organs. Because you float with complete ease, you can completely surrender your physical body and let your mind take front stage. Getting to that point can take a while — you'll probably fidget and move around a lot at the beginning, your mind will wander, and your pesky ego will distract you in every way it can think of — but when it happens, things can get interesting.

I won't describe my whole experience as it's very personal and has no relevance to your own experience, but there is one moment that I attribute to a very profound shift in my own consciousness and relates directly with the idea of "The Witness". At a certain point in my journey, I was presented with the image of my body, and floating just above and behind my head was a large cloud of swirling colours — very much like a cartoon thought bubble, but instead of dots leading to my mind, this cloud was tethered to the back of my head and connected to all of my sensory organs — eyes, ears, nose and mouth etc. I immediately recognized this cloud as my true inner consciousness (or spirit) and saw for the first time that my body was merely a vehicle and input device for my Self. More than that, it wasn't even contained by my body. It just uses it to get around!

The sketch from my float tank journal entry.

From that point on, things really shifted for me, and it's become of utmost importance to take care of my vehicle as best as I know how — and I'm learning more every day. Part of my hatha yoga practice is just that — body maintenance. The rest of it is a wonderful, challenging, entertaining inner game of tennis between my Ego and my Self rallying back and forth.

Awakening to the presence of inner Witness has empowered me in overcoming habits, both mental and physical, that I previously felt completely powerless to. It has allowed my true Self to shine through after many years of being locked in a little room. For me, it's a daily practice to remind myself that my Self is there, observing it all, and that my ego will only run the show if I allow it.

I invite you to take a moment today to welcome the Witness into your life, have a chuckle at the antics of your monkey mind, and find some love and acceptance of your meat body with all of it's creaky joints, banged up limbs and weathered finish.