Fit Yoga 2011
Yoga teaches us to face our fears with patience and an open heart.
By Christina Sell, from Yoga International, early fall 2012
The victories and the challenges we encounter in our yoga practice become instructions for how to live more skillfully. In the first few years of practice, many people happily report that yoga has alleviated their anxiety, brought about increased feelings of well-being, and become a welcome respite from the stresses of everyday life. In this initial honeymoon phase, yoga offers a time-out from—and a soothing balm for—our difficulties.
But then sometimes a shift occurs in our practice and yoga takes us out of our comfort zone and catapults us into a much more challenging inner terrain that no longer feels like soothing relief. Our yoga becomes a source of tension instead, and we suddenly come face-to-face with the difficult and even scarier aspects of who we are and how we behave. We can easily lose heart and give up, believing that something is wrong with us—or with the type of yoga we’ve chosen—and decide that maybe we should just stop practicing altogether.
I believe, however, that the opposite is true; that we need to keep going. During this challenging phase, as our fears and flaws surface, we have a chance to work with those aspects of our personality that get in the way of knowing ourselves on a deeper level. For example, we may suddenly notice jealousy, anger, or fear arising, identify with it, and completely disregard the deeper truth that lives underneath the layers (or koshas) of our psychological conditioning and behavioral patterns. Like a set of Russian dolls, these koshas represent nesting layers of being, with experiences and truths existing at each level within us. So when we discover difficult truths about ourselves at one level, such as a tendency toward jealousy or fear, yoga reminds us that our experience at that moment does not represent the whole truth of who we are.
I call this stage of sadhana the yogic “fine print,” where we discover that direct lessons about faith will come through the doorway of doubt, where compassion is taught through pain, where true beauty is revealed only after facing what is ugly, and where courage is found in the dark recesses of what scares us most. The fine print of yogic practice shows us that these pairs of opposites inform one another in complementary and meaningful ways and that, as psychologist Carl Jung suggested many years ago, “The only way out is through.”
To go through rocky inner terrain requires courage in the face of fear, which reminds me of a teaching I received at a yoga teacher training years ago. Geeta Iyengar, B. K. S. Iyengar’s daughter, asked the group if they had any questions. One of the trainees asked, “What can we do when fear comes up for us or for our students during the practice?” Geeta replied, “When fear arises, you must lift your chest. You must lift your heart.”
The answer is great advice and holds insight for us on both a physical and an emotional level. Physically, when we get scared, our breath becomes shallow, our chest caves in, and our shoulders roll forward in an unconscious attempt to protect what feels vulnerable or afraid—the heart. Many times our hip flexors lock up on us as well. Fear has a posture.
Courage has a posture, too: a lifted chest, shoulder blades that sit firmly on the back, and a relaxed abdomen, all of which work in concert to strengthen the spine, stabilize the torso, elevate the emotions, and allow us to breathe more deeply, which helps reverse anxiety and fear-based tension.
As much as the word “posture” refers to our outer form, it pertains equally to our inner world. By working on the outer posture, the hatha practitioner gains access to his or her emotions and attitudes. When we act and look courageous, we begin to feel courageous, a yogic fake-it-til-you-make-it strategy. Of course, as with so many things in yoga, we must move slowly and patiently. We have established certain physical, mental, and emotional patterns that have become ingrained in us over a long period of time. In order to let these go and find newer, healthier expressions, we must create a mindful, respectful, and nurturing environment. I am reminded of the folk story about the farmer who was so excited about the plants in his field that he tugged on the tender sprouts to get them to grow faster and pulled them right out of the ground. Patience is as much a virtue as courage, as the old farmer discovered.
And so it is with patience and courage that we approach this month’s heart-opening, courage-building backbend, bhekasana. This posture requires that we lift the chest—challenging work for the shoulders and the front of the chest—while holding our legs stable in an intense quadriceps stretch. Physically, we need tremendous strength in our back and an equal amount of flexibility in our thighs, chest, and shoulders. Over time, with practice, the dynamic blend of strength and flexibility required for this posture can help us learn that lifting our heart or seeking courage in the face of fear is a demanding, challenging, and multifaceted journey.
Plan to practice the poses in this sequence more than several times as they’ll become easier with repetition. Begin your practice session with several rounds of sun salutations and some standing poses such asparshvakonasana (side angle pose), trikonasana (triangle pose), andvirabhadrasana 1 (warrior 1 pose) to help you warm up by activating your legs and stretching your spine. In your opening postures, focus on actively pushing or rooting your legs downward into the floor to encourage a corresponding lift through your torso and spine. By stretching your spine in this way, your body will be ready to do the more specific work of shoulder and quadriceps stretching that this sequence emphasizes and that bhekasana requires.
Stand in tadasana and interlace your hands behind your back. As you inhale, firm the muscles of your legs and lift your chest. Keeping your elbows slightly bent behind you, firm your shoulder blades on your back and take your arm bones toward the back plane of your body until you feel a strong stretch along the front of your chest and shoulders.
This intense stretch for the shoulders often creates a “swayback” position in the lumbar spine. To counteract this tendency, move your side ribs toward the back plane of the body, scoop your tailbone into your body, and lift your low belly from the pubic bone to the navel to create tone in your abdomen and support for your spine. Hold the posture for 5 to 10 breaths. Release, change the hand clasp so the opposite forefinger is on top, and repeat.
Stand in tadasana. If the fronts of your shoulders are very tight, place a strap over your right shoulder. Stretch your left arm out to the side, parallel with the floor, at shoulder height. Bend your elbow and place your left hand on your right shoulder blade, with the top of your hand directly on the blade and your palm facing the wall behind you. If you are using a strap, place it in your left hand.
Lift your right arm directly out in front of you until it is parallel with the floor at shoulder height. Inhale deeply and lift your chest fully. Keeping the lift in your chest, move the head of your arm bone deeper into your shoulder socket. Exhale. With your next inhalation, bring your arm overhead. Bend your right arm and grab hold of the strap or clasp your left hand with your right hand. Breathe deeply and hold the posture for 5 to 10 breaths. Release the clasp and repeat on the other side.
Begin in a low lunge with your right knee on the floor. Inhale, place your hands on your front thigh, and bring your torso to a vertical position. To stabilize your torso, exhale and bring your chin to your chest for a moment. Push your hands gently into your front leg, slide your side ribs back, and lift your low belly. Maintaining that tone, lift your chin slightly until your neck rests in a natural curve.
Next, interlace your hands behind your back, broaden your elbows to the sides, inhale, and lift your chest courageously. Bring your shoulder blades toward one another on your back, move the heads of your arm bones to the back plane of your body, and stretch your chest and shoulders. If your back is strong, you can deepen this posture by creating an upper back backbend or a “coiling” action in your upper back. In order to do this safely, squeeze your legs until you feel your inner thighs engage, root your back knee firmly into the floor, and keep the abdominal-tailbone area strong. Lift your collarbones and upper chest toward the ceiling, and if your neck will allow it, gently take the head back and lift your eyes toward the ceiling. Otherwise, keep your gaze forward. Hold for 5 breaths. Remember, cultivating courage and confidence takes time. Release and repeat on the other side.
Lie on your belly. Place your left forearm on the floor, parallel to the front edge of your mat. Bend your right knee and point your toes toward the ceiling. Stretch your right arm out in front of you and stick your thumb in the air as though you are hitchhiking. Then reach your hand back and grab hold of your foot’s inner arch. Keep your thumb on your inner arch and bend your right elbow slightly out to the side. Inhale fully. Keep your belly strong and your tailbone engaged. Lift your chest, lift your shoulder toward your ear, move your arm bone back, turn your forearm in toward your body, and wrap your hand around the top of your foot. Hold the posture for 5 to 10 breaths and then release and repeat on the other side.
From anjaneyasana, place your left hand on your left thigh. Bend your right knee and take hold of your foot. This posture is a very deep quadriceps stretch so make sure to activate your legs, lift your chest, and keep your core abdominal muscles engaged. If you have difficulty bringing your foot to your hip, try this: Bend slightly forward at your hips. Stick your buttock out and bring it back to your foot. Now close the joint of your knee and bring your heel to your hip. Keeping your hip and your heel joined, move back into the form of the pose, bringing your pelvis forward and your left sitting bone closer toward your left heel. The torso will sometimes turn toward the back leg. In order to square your hips and optimally align your torso, draw your right ribs toward your left knee until both hips and both shoulders face forward. Hold for 5 breaths. Release and repeat on the other side.
Lie on your belly. Bring your legs together and the inside edges of your feet together. Squeeze the muscles of your legs firmly to tone your legs. Inhale fully, squeezing your shoulders firmly toward one another. Lift your torso and legs up and away from the floor until you are balancing only on your abdomen. To get higher, separate your legs hip-distance apart, inhale, and lift your chest and legs higher. Maintain that new height and rejoin your legs. Hold for 5 breaths. Lower slowly. Rest.
Lie down on your belly with your arms by your sides, palms face up. Bend your knees until your shins are perpendicular to the floor; your legs should be about six inches apart. Keeping your fingers in contact with the floor, inhale fully and create length along the sides of your torso. Move the heads of your arm bones back and your shoulder blades toward each other. Inhale and lift your torso and legs as far off the floor as possible. Lift your thighs, lower ribs, and chin and hold this position for 5 full breaths.
Lying on your belly, bend your knees, reach your arms behind you, and clasp the tops of your feet. Point your toes toward the ceiling. Inhale, move your arm bones back, and lift your lower ribs and thighs off the floor. Squeeze your legs toward one another to prevent the knees from splaying, kick your legs back into your hands, tone the muscles in your buttocks to lift your legs more, and with great persistence and tenacity, lift your chest as high off the floor as you can, balancing your weight on your belly.
Much like courage develops in the face of fear, and confidence grows in our moments of insecurity, the strength we need for bhekasana comes through the very challenge of the posture itself, this lift against gravity. From dhanurasana, increase your efforts to lift your chest. Continue kicking your right leg into your right hand, bend your left knee, turn your left forearm in toward your body, pivoting on the heel of your left hand in order to clasp your hand around your toes. Hold for 5 breaths. Return your left hand to your foot for danurasana, lift your chest again, and repeat the instructions on the other side, bringing your right foot into bhekasana. After completing 5 breaths with your right leg folded in, return to dhanurasana before releasing and resting. It requires tremendous endurance to maintain good alignment, so rest between sides if you need to.
Lying on your belly, reach back and grab your feet as though you were going to do dhanurasana. Inhale, lift your chest as high as you can and squeeze your shoulders toward one another. Maintain the lift of your torso and keep your arm bones back while you fold your feet into your hips and rotate your hands around the tops of your feet until they face forward. If you are new to the pose, fold your legs in one at a time. The higher you lift your chest, the easier it is to fold your legs into the shape of the posture. Hold for 5 breaths and then slowly release the posture, and relax.
End your practice with adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog), a few simple reclining twists, supta padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose) and uttanasana (standing forward bend pose). Sarvangasana(shoulderstand) or viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) would further complement this sequence. Take time to relax and integrate your efforts with a long shavasana. It is important to balance strong effort with periods of rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation so that your practice is balanced and you give yourself a chance to experience the variety of moods, feelings, and insights that accompany the inner journey of asana.
Christina Sell has been teaching yoga since 1998 and is the author of Yoga from the Inside Out and My Body Is a Temple.
The real Miracle is the transformation of the human consciousness
into something divine. For this transformation to occur dynamically,
…(there is) one quality necessary for spiritual mastery,
and that is openness.
“A day that I don’t learn something new is a wasted day.”
[From Origin Magazine, Summer 2012]
On Limbic Resonance; What We Share
Limbic resonance, defined in A General Theory of Love as a “miraculous intermediary” that creates critical connections between others and ourselves, has me fascinated. Limbic regulation is the process by which we’re emotionally, physically, neurologically shaped by those who surround us. From our earliest moments of life, we are getting our first tastes of our emotional landscape secondhand, by watching our caretakers respond to events, then using their response as a way to know our own. Think of how a kid falls, then looks to his parent for information on how he should react.
Via this “harmonizing activity of nearby limbic brains,” we’re calmer within ourselves when we’re in calm company, more frenetic internally in the presence of someone rushing, and more loving in the company of folks who prioritize love. Along those lines, we’ve learned to create either protective shields or open invitations based on what thought we needed to get by when we were small. And as we continue our journeys of self-understanding now, as adults, in some respects we still have pretty sturdy walls standing between us and our healing. Even decades later, we hesitate to let those walls down, and enter into relationships just like the ones that shaped us early on, simply because they’re familiar, no matter how quietly or overtly destructive. May we all realize that we chose our coping mechanisms – and can choose so differently now.
Our Habitual Moods
Red Hawk, one of my go-to authors, suggests that those walls are simply accumulated habitual moods that have historically served us. In his book Self Observation, he says that these moods, when they’re successful, get us what we need, and become hardwired into our systems as effective default settings, “…so that, under moments of duress, the central nervous system will immediately default to these habitual moods.”
He then notes the example of depression. “Depression is one such mood, for example. It is the favorite of many people. Why? Because it gets the attention of others who may then be induced to rescue me and take care of me = survival.” I recognize that this is a deeper conversation as to the question of chemical imbalance in cases of depression, but if Red Hawk is correct, any imbalance in chemistry actually evolved out of a habitual repetition of moods. We repeat moods, habits, until we learn to remap our brains. Myself, I’ve felt whispers of depression in my body, traceable to the child in me who got the most thorough attention when I was not at my best, home sick or suffering in some way. Having learned early what would get me attention, anytime I felt uncomfortable in my skin and unable to face my day growing up, I’d say I was sick and try to stay home, and that really felt comforting to me. Being seen for being sick (or now as an adult, sad) was one of my “walls” that still sometimes stops me from just being great.
Yoga helps us see these walls (moods) that prevent us from experiencing and exchanging healing resonance; on the mat we feel the blocks in our bodies, and there is where we begin to invite awareness. Breathing opens up those places both structurally and internally, but I wasn’t really learning how to shift my behavior in real time via my yoga practice.
Coaching Complements Yoga
How did I learn how to break down those walls, in actual interactions? Coaching. Working with the Handel Group, we learn about how our minds work, see the contexts in which we’ve built those walls, and begin the process of dismantling them. This work helps us create new paradigms in which we welcome healing relationships instead of the ones in which we perpetuate destruction as wound meets wound.
Is coaching as spiritual as yoga? Perhaps surprisingly, coaching is a highly spiritual undertaking. The work of seeing clearly, dissolving blame, and telling my truth keeps me re-connecting: to mySELF, my friends and my family in new ways all the time, which makes me proud, which opens me to more to my connection to spirit, to Source, whatever you’d like to call it. I feel it. I wasn’t feeling it with yoga alone.
How does coaching work, exactly? Specifically, the work begins with designing my life – crafting specific, profound dreams for all areas of my life, and determining why they’re not true yet. Within the reasons why they’re not true is where I learn exactly how my mind (walls and all) works to keep me my dreams far away. I’m building trust in myself. Designing my life means that I’m actively remapping my own mind in the direction of courage and freedom, through actively practices of both yoga and integrity. Which inspires me – both consciously and unconsciously – to surround myself with family, colleagues, and friends who resonate with my evolving design for myself. This magnetizes others who trust themselves. We lift each other up.
Are we becoming dangerously co-dependent or do we actually help each other? According to the authors of A General Theory of Love, “limbic regulation and a balanced level of dependence are actually curative.” Our relatedness to each other helps us evolve, grow, prosper, and believe in our missions, together. When I am in my heart and focused on healing, I find myself surrounded by people who point me even more surely in that direction. Even when I falter and allow anger into my body, I find my way back to my heart, apologize, and remap the moment. Learning how to listen with more love is my only practice now.
Sharing Our Attention
So does my coach, or my man, or my kid’s ability to tell the truth impact mine? Yes. Does mine impact theirs? Yes. Is limbic regulation that obvious? Yes and no. It’s not as clear-cut as we might think. “Knowledge leaps the gap from one mind to the other, but the learner does not experience the transferred information as an explicit strategy. Instead, a spontaneous capacity germinates and becomes a natural part of the self, like knowing how to ride a bike or tie one’s shoes.” May I place an order for the spontaneous capacity to own my prevailing bullshit, anger and disdain, please? And can I “listen” by consciously leaping the gap from my mind to another? When I’m feeling afraid, can I actually tune into a fearless friend’s resonance so I can feel my own bravery “germinate and become a natural part” of myself? Can I do this across time, across space, across generations? YES.
We all exchange so much; we trade fear as fast as great ideas, we share sensations of lack as readily as we share abundance. We can lend each other doubt as often as we offer encouragement. As Diane Ackerman says, “We are defined by how we place our attention.” Share yours well.