This week’s #FocusFriday isn’t actually a pose.It’s all of the transitions between poses.Transitions between poses are the most difficult time to stay focused and mindful.They are the times when people often get hurt.We go on autopilot.We space out and simply stop being attentive at the moment when our presence matters most.Even when we’re coming out of shavasana, we tend to jerk the body up and don’t leave time for a considered reinstating of movement.That’s why we tell students to go deeper into a pose just before coming out; it’s in order to keep ourselves attentive to those critical in-between moments. For instance, I’ll say in class an alignment instruction learned from the Iyengars: “Continue to externally rotate the standing leg knee while coming into and out of half moon pose.” This isn’t just filler; these instructions are crucial for both the body and the mind. This is the micro for the macro. Transitions between yoga poses are metaphors for transitions in life (a small subject, I know, a little like birth and death). For instance, Rodney & I have one daughter, JoJo, transitioning into college and one daughter, Adesha, transitioning out of college. Watching them go through these transitions, readjusting and redefining themselves can be painful. It can also be revelatory. We are always transitioning: Making the change from living alone to living with someone can be as tricky as is the transition from being married to being divorced. Beginning to menstruate is a major transition, as is menopause. Becoming a sexually active adult can be initially traumatizing. Much of our yoga practice, as well as our lives are spent in transition. Yoga shows us that becoming mindful and comfortable during these transitions will open the way to more meaningful and full human experiences. The maha transitions are the big ones, birth and death; the small births & deaths we experience every day are dress rehearsals. How should we handle these moments of uncertainty—moving from one thing to another? My advice is with humor & compassion. (This photo is of a transition—it’s not very graceful, but it’s taken with both humor & compassion).
The great B.K.S. Iyengar considered Lotus Pose (padmasana) the easiest asana in Light on Yoga. So why is it so difficult for Westerners to sit in padmasana? Because we don’t squat when we go to the bathroom. (That’s sort of a joke, but not really. The main action of Lotus Pose is the folding of the legs, and we just don’t do that very much in our society.)
Why are Buddha and Shiva depicted sitting in Lotus Pose? Maybe because it’s a balanced pose which illuminates the central channel, sending one into a deep meditation. What is a “balanced” pose? Is it one that balances apana (downward wind) with prana (upward wind) and creates inner and outer spirals? (The groin is released in the inner spiral and the hips externally rotate in the outward spiral.) Lotus is a pose that creates equanimity. It sends you to the center of the center. How should one approach Lotus? Every day, try to practice these things: First, lie down on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Then strap your legs in Cobblers Pose (baddha konasana). Hang out in Child’s Pose. After that, practice the release of your groin while doing standing poses and end with the great groin releaser: Hero Pose (virasana). Then explore external rotation with ankle to knee (lying on back first, then seated), Tree Pose, Simple Cross Legged Pose with a forward bend, and Pigeon with a forward fold. Can you feel the draw into your central channel even if you can’t do a perfect Lotus? Yes, but you may need to let your ego take a back seat and use props to find that kind of balance and ease in the meditative seat.
Sit on folded blankets with your back at the wall. Sit in a simple crossed legged position so that the groin releases and you are not straining your lower back and then support your knees with blankets or blocks until the pose becomes easy. The main energetic action is to feel the connection from your feet to the pelvis, to the roof of your mouth, and to the crown of your head. These connections are important to your meditative seat. If you don’t know how to begin to find this integration and conversation, come to @theyogashanti and we’ll help to illuminate it for you!
Today’s #FocusFriday pose is side plank, pose! After the last earthquake in Nepal, it was noted that Mt. Everest had moved. How crazy is that? And what an example of impermanence. Mountain pose is the same—strong, steady, and yet moveable. If we reach our arms out so that they’re parallel to the floor, flex one hand, and turn the head towards the other, we begin to understand the basic architecture of side-plank pose: the arms make a perpendicular line to the center line of the torso.
We can’t just topple sideways from mountain, because our wrist would be destroyed, so instead we come to side plank from plank pose or downward-facing dog. The most common mistake in getting into side plank is to place the supporting hand right under the shoulders; the supporting hand should be placed so that the bottom arm can stay at a right angle with the center line of the torso. At the same time, strong legs reach through the inside of the feet, and hips lift a little higher than a straight line between the feet and the crown of the head. The top arm extends straight up from the bottom arm, as the pelvis and the chest turn slightly upward toward the sky. Even in this orientation, the mountain looks up toward the sky. If balance is too challenging, place the bottom leg knee on the ground.
Remember, this is an arm-balance pose, but the more you find the center, the more it feels like who you think you are doesn’t exist, and you get closer to your authentic self and the unknown mystery and beauty that waits for us in the center of the center of the center.
This is not my favorite pose. My proportions are such that I need arms that are 6 inches longer in order to get my torso parallel to the floor and feel any sense of freedom. Whereas Rodney looks like he’s floating. So I will always use a block, or, like in this case, Rodney’s ankle. If you have long legs, a narrow chest, and medium-length arms, you need a block underneath your bottom hand. If you have shorter legs and a buff chest (Rodney), then you won’t need a block. When the alignment of half-moon clicks in, it literally feels like you’re flying. Once you get the arm, chest, leg ratio worked out, focus on details. The lifted leg is parallel to the floor. I would say that the brain of ardha chandrasana is the intense reach of the lifted leg. The standing-leg butt and knee strongly externally rotate. The arms are an extension of each other as they spread the upper back and upper chest, while the neck, head, and chest work together to form a backbend and a mild twist. The gaze is at the top hand. Use trikonasana, triangle, to come in and out of the pose. Be especially careful not to load the inner knee coming out of the pose. Focus on the external rotation of the knee while descending back to triangle. This is a great pose when you are feeling collapsed, defeated, and out of kilter. When properly aligned, it gives you balance and suspension. When you use your legs this strongly, it makes you feel confident. Ardha chandrasana requires focus of the mind. So if you want to feel balanced, suspended, confident, and focused, this is your pose (even if you need a block).
Ardha Matsyandrasana II is one of the most balanced twists in yoga, because it respects and echoes the natural curves of the spine. As a result, it’s one of the few twists that can be held for up to five minutes. Because it’s a truly neutral pose, it’s OK to practice ardha matsyandrasana II after backbends.
There’s a big internal rotation of the straight leg in the pose, so you can revolve deeply into the twist. You’re sitting evenly on your two sitting bones, which gives the twist a solid foundation, as well as heaven-to-earth energy, or apana vayu.
Excellent preparations for ardha matsyandrasana II are lotus preps [see Focus Friday June 5], open twists, and poses that have internal-rotation of both arms (reverse prayer, interlacing fingers behind the back, shoulder stand arms, and other binding poses). Binding is easier if your torso is narrow and your arms long. If you can’t bind, just grab your shirt, your thigh, your shin, or use a strap. Ardha matsyandrasana II is a beautiful pose. I’m including photographs of my own version, as well as Mr. Iyengar’s, so that you can see both a master and an novice.
If there are any specific poses that you would like to see on Focus Friday, don’t be shy. Let me know.