Deep Strength

The Evolution of Going Deeper

When I started practicing Yoga 22 years ago, my experience of going deeper was relegated to the possibility of laying flat over my legs when in a forward fold or catching the bind in a seated twist.  I was in fast pursuit of how deeply I could go in an asana, and this gave me the feeling of completely losing myself in a posture.  I felt a bit invincible on my yoga mat.  I yearned for that moment where I was immersed deeply in the pose,  in my breath, in the movement, in the “union” of my body, my mind, and my spirit The moment where the world faded into the background and peace emerged.

The deeper my practice became, the more it felt like my practice was a solitary one.  It was difficult for me to express to my friends and family the profound connection to myself I felt when I was practicing yoga, and that made me feel very alone. I realized that when I left my mat, I was edgy.  

Time passed.  I got married, I had babies.  My body changed.  It rebelled.  I swam in a constant sea of injury and pain striving to get back to that place I had found in my youth.  I was struggling to re-unite. All I knew was to keep striving to push the edge of physicality. After all, I had only found that beautiful place of "union", through the vehicle of my body.  In the rare moments I was able to be present in my practice long enough to go deep, I found that the agitation and frustration that I felt at the completion of my practice was heightened. I even felt resentful to my family for not being able to line-up with my inner peace.  At some point, I knew there had to be more than this tug-of-war between the peace I found in my practice and the chaos of the world.  So, I found a teacher.  

n finding that teacher, my mind was blown.  The Yoga I had known and practiced for so many years of my life began to morph and evolve into something wholly different than anything I had ever experienced before.  I started prioritizing my meditative practices as highly as my physical ones, I immersed myself in study and contemplation.  I was amazed at how much more there was to the practice than I had ever realized.  My new pursuit looked a lot less like a badass arm balance, and a lot more like hours of silent exploration.  Gradually my practice became less daunting (regardless of the external evidence), and I gained more confidence in my individuated approach to practice.  I even started changing the way I was teaching. My experience of yoga became more allowing, more curious.  Yet, I was still uncomfortable in my daily life.  In practice, I could find my peace, but in the world I felt like a whirlwind of thoughts and frustration.  I kept turning to my mat and my cushion for respite, but still found it difficult to integrate what I was discovering about myself and my practice in my fast-paced life of work and family.

I asked myself what is required of me now to move deeper and I realized that the answer was to take this graceful and curious heart of mine off my mat and my cushion and out into the world. This is the next level of my practice.  

Of course I will always re-charge on my mat and my cushion, but the real practice of yoga is now what happens on the street, in the coffee shop, and the grocery store.  The real practice of yoga begins in that moment where I can roll over onto my side, use my hands and arms to lift this gift of a body up, blow out the candles, put on my shoes and walk out into the world. 

Are you ready to go deeper? To bridge the gap between your internal practice and the life you lead? If you are, join me.  


Pose of the Month: Parsvottanasana

Parsvottanasana is a pose that my teacher instructs often.  Why?  It’s incredibly stabilizing, yes.  It is a standing forward fold that supports a powerful apanic (downward and outward) flow of energy.  Which would imply it’s a pose about letting go, but is it?  In practice, it is often experienced as an asana that guides us toward strength and stability in the midst of challenge, a way that we can seek balance and alignment to support our growth.  The alignment of this pose is often a student’s biggest challenge.  Finding the right rotation of the thighs to stabilize the SI joints, engaging the core in the right way to allow and support the lumbar curve, and sustaining the alignment of the hips and thighs can sometimes feel unreachable. Parsvottansana is sometimes called Pyramid, a pseudonym which emphasizes the powerful foundation and strength engendered in this pose.

 

Parsvottanasana is also known as Intense Side stretch, because as Mr. Iyengar says, the name “implies a pose in which the side of the chest is stretched intensely.” Now let’s be honest.  Most people don’t feel this stretch in the side of their chests, they feel it intensely in the backs of their legs. And the tendency is not to feel solid and balanced in this pose, which would cause a lack of strength and stability.  So how can we use the inconsistencies or “mis” alignments of Parsvottanasana to bring clarity and direct us toward the path of strength and stability?  Well, it doesn’t begin with our hamstrings or even with the placement of our feet, but with our approach to the practice instead. 

The way we approach our Parsvottanasana is very telling of how we approach our practice as a whole and maybe our lives as well (as is usually the case).  If we find that balance is a challenge in this pose, then perhaps we notice a weak foundation in many of our asanas, and a general feeling of ungroundedness in our lives. Maybe we forgo the balance to strive for the deep forward fold, sacrificing all of the support that we can create for ourselves, and then at the completion of the pose, or the practice, or the life situation, we feel spent.  Empty of any real benefit, and maybe a little bit pulled apart at the seams.  When we practice Parsvottanasana in the most aware way, we find that it is incredibly balancing and stabilizing and offers us the potential to expand and grow into our chests in a way that supports breaking through self imposed boundaries and limitations

To find the deep strength, stability and expansion that can be accessible in this pose, it is helpful to understand the basic anatomical structure.  Parsvottanasana is a standing asymmetrical forward fold. It involves mild spinal flexion at upper thoracic, but this spinal flexion is often experienced as a misalignment of more severe spinal flexion especially around the lumbar spine. With deep hip flexion in front leg, and knee extension in both legs, there is a tendency to hyperextend the knee joints and grip in the hip flexors (from side to side).  The pelvic floor (mula bandha) is powerfully engaged to support the base/foundation of the pyramid. Quads, adductors, calves and feet all work continuously to maintain balance and stability. In the front leg, the hamstring and glute stretch is intense, while the soleus and gastrocnemius (calf muscles) of the back leg are lengthening.  The spinal erectors are also lengthening proportionate to the depth of the fold.  Though the back toes angle out slightly, the intention of the muscle action is toward internal rotation to balance and stabilize the pelvis.  If we place the hands in the more intermediate/advanced position of reverse prayer pose, then we create downward rotation and abduction leading toward adduction of the scapulae.  As well as deep dorsiflexion in the wrists and forearm pronation. The pectoralis major works in conjuction with the subscapularis and teres major to internally rotate the humerus. All culminating in a profound opening and stretch of the chest.

As with any deep work, the process takes time and patience, and we simply can’t bypass the importance of creating a strong foundation in order to reach the expansive feeling at the heart of this pose (intense side stretch).  To build Parsvottansana from a place of strength and stability allows us the solid base that we need in order to grow and expand into new and sometimes frightening places.  The practice of asana is training for the deeper and more intense work of Yoga, to dive deep into the places that we’ve guarded or hidden from ourselves in hopes of finding freedom.  When we move from perfecting our pose and toward allowing the asana to unfold, we find strength and stability bubbles up from someplace deep inside. We are set free from the pattern of superficial strain and outward performance. In making that shift, the effort of the pose is greatly decreased and the elegant grace at its essence is attained.  Alignment becomes more intuitive and accessible. We trade our exertion for elegance.  We shift from accomplishing a pose to embodying an intention, and the experience becomes more fulfilling. 
 
Ultimately the practice of Parsvottanasana leads us in the direction of this elegance.  It guides us to stability, strength and balance so that we may expand to our fullest potential.  Eventually, we are no longer distracted by our hamstrings, or discouraged by the alignment of our pelvis, and we are able to stretch deep into our chest and upper body and open the places that we so quickly and easily close to the world and to ourselves.  In finding that space, we move from our mat and into our lives with the sense of ease and grace. We dance with life rather than wrestle with it.

Copyright YogaBasics.com, reprinted with permission.