yoga poses

Pose of the Month: Hanumanasana

Many of the asanas in our repertoire have a fascinating mythology behind them.  Perhaps one of the most well known stories is the one of Hanuman, the monkey king and loyal devotee to Lord Rama, who lept across the sea from India to Lanka to reassure Ram’s wife, Sita that she will be rescued.  He is represented in Hanumanasana (Seated Splits) as making that great leap of devotion, and as we practice we are often called to embody that devotion in ourselves. But, for many of today’s modern practitioners, the idea of devotion is a foreign one.  Many yogis in the west can understand the theory, but cannot quite experience the practice.  Maybe one of the biggest hurdles is feeling comfortable offering that much of your heart to another, often unseen and unproven, object of worship.

So, rather than project a contrived feeling of devotion, we can use Hanumanasana to uncover an experience that is unique to all of us, one through which we can enhance our practice and ultimately unite our individual understanding with the universal essence of devotion that lies within all of us.  Hanumanasana is an intermediate to advanced experience of asana when practiced in it’s fullest expression, but there are a plethora of ways to experiment with this pose that provide a foundational experience of its extremes without compromising safety or accessibility.  When we delve in to the practice of Hanumanasana, we dive deep into the experience of our physical self, which can open a pathway to observing the deep essence of the highest Self within.  

There is a perfect essence inside of each and every one of us.  Sometimes we forget that it is there because of all of the distractions and layers that we pile on top of it.  As we practice yoga, we begin to get glimpses of that perfection within, flashes of insight that may express themselves as a sense of ease in a challenging or stressful situation, a feeling of joy without a discernible origin, or an overwhelming experience of calm within the cyclone of our everyday lives.  When these glimpses of our own essence flash through our awareness, we can use them to hone our understanding of devotion, an expression of deep love and commitment and an unshakable loyalty to the ever-present source of perfection in ourselves.

In Hanuamanasana we unite to seemingly contradictory actions to create a challenging expression of expansion and growth.  In this pose, we combine the forward flexion action of the front leg with the extension action of the back leg and the work of balancing the sacrum and spine between these asymmetrical actions.  The hamstrings of the front leg are powerfully lengthening, and action which can be more safely balanced by eccentrically contracting providing a stabilizing action to the sometimes over mobilized joints of the knee and hip.  The back leg should be in powerful internal rotation with strong action in the back foot either with the ankle in dorsi flexion or plantar flexion depending upon the comfort of the back knee.  

This pose offers a deep stretch on the hip flexors of the back leg, primarily the psoas, iliacus, rectus femoris, sartorius and tensor fascia lata.  For people with tight hip flexors, this can present a real challenge.  Modifications abound for this pose that range from several different ways to use blocks and bolsters, to working your way into the pose slowly and accessibly from a low lunge position.

This pose is equally challenging to those practitioners who have tight hamstrings.  The front leg is in full extension, lengthening all three muscles of the hamstring group, the gluteus maximus, and the gastrocnemius and soleus of the calf.  Again, myriad modifications exist here to make this pose accessible and safe as you unwind the layers of tension and restriction that have been perched on our experience for an extended amount of time.

The fullest expression of this pose is full spinal lengthening, with all of the muscles around the spine supporting this action.  When the full pose is achieved, the breath is unobstructed and the spine is stable.  In exploring Hanuamanasana, it is best to find a modification that allows for these points to be at the top of the list of experiences, more than the deep stretch of the hamstrings and work of the hip flexors.  In using this pose to explore the concept of devotion, we don’t seek to push or force anything upon our body or ourselves.  We approach the experience with grace and poise, so that the beauty of our essence can shine through.

Through the patience that is required of our bodies and our minds, we begin to unfold the knowing of our own light.  Instead of cursing ourselves for not getting it, we learn to honor our individual experience, to love where we are at, to be loyal and truthful to what is happening in this moment.  By enduring the this slow unfolding of possibilities, we over and over again practice giving honor and devotion to our highest Self.

Ultimately when Hanuman was challenged to see the objects of his devotion inside of himself, he ripped open his chest, revealing that Ram and Sita lived inside of his own heart.  This is the definitive understanding of devotion, that the object of your deep love and the knowing of your highest Self are not separate but one in the same.  Classically, our path is to first put all our focus on an object, and then concentrate until we become the object of our focus.  So too is the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga).  By placing all of our focus on the divine, whether it be in external form or the essence of our own hearts, we will then merge with this object and become that which we seek.  The practice of Hanumanasana provides an opportunity to explore this very possibility.

Copyright, reprinted with permission.

Pose of the Month: Gomukasana

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Gomukasana (cow face yoga pose) is an incredible experience of physical heart opening and simultaneous rooting.  Its form is representative of the face of the sacred cow that offers sustenance and sustainability as well as a powerful connection to the earth.  Traditionally, the cow in Indian culture revered as a holy animal, and represents nourishment, abundance, and the embodiment of the sacred.  In the Hindu tradition, the cow, Nandi, is the vehicle upon which Lord Shiva rides, and is also a central figure in the life of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu who is the sustainer of the universe.

Krishna as a youth and young man was a cow herder, and known by various aliases, Gopala, which means one who protects the cows, and Govinda, which means one who brings satisfaction to the cows.  In Hindu mythology, this task represents the devotion that Lord Krishna has to sustaining the harmony of the world. In Gomukasana, the pose itself is said to resemble the cows face with the arms representing two ears and the cross of the legs the lips of the cows face.

When approaching a pose like Gomukasana, often we groan and grunt and wish our way through it.  We are called in the asana to open our hearts while still leaving compassionate and comfortable space for our heads.  The asana informs us that we have stay rooted in order to speak the truth of the heart.  It represents our willingness to open to receive the insight of our heart without sacrificing our personal foundation. For most practitioners, the practice of Gomukasana is either a really satisfying one or an intense challenge.  Some of us can access the necessary freedom in the hips, but find it difficult to stay connected to the earth and others of us struggle with tightness and resistance in our root.  The bind of the arms for some is easeful and expansive, but for others is restrictive, painful and sometimes downright inaccessible. 

When we work with where we are in Gomukasana, we allow space for self-nourishment, and room for the voice of our hearts to be heard.  We no longer seek to hide this tender space from the world because it can feel very difficult and vulnerable, and instead find the strength and flexibility to shine our hearts out while continuing to respect the directions of our mind.  Our body holds an armor, an unconscious defense of what we feel needs to be protected.  For most of us, we work hard to protect the sacred space of our hearts, and when we begin to explore opening this space, we are met with the sentries of tension, resistance, and sometimes pain.  Gomukasana addresses these guards directly through opening the shoulders and chest, and supports our efforts to stay grounded through the opening of the hips and grounding at the root.

In Gomukasana, we seek a neutral spine as the platform from which to do the work.  As this pose progresses and our hearts open, a slight thoracic extension (upper backbend) will emerge from the freedom of lifting the sternum and chest while releasing the shoulders.  The legs are adducted and externally rotated, stacked knee to knee and the weight of the legs and hips are released into gravity.  For those practitioners with limited hip mobility, the stack of the knees can cause strain on those joints, and should be modified for safety.  Straightening the bottom leg and stacking only the top knee can help a great deal in providing greater freedom in the pose. Alternatively, a bolster or blanket can be placed under the hips.

The arms and shoulders in this pose are very active.  The upper arm is externally rotated, the scapula (shoulder blade) is rotated upwardly accessing the deep layer of muscles beneath the scapula called the rhomboids, the triceps are lengthening and the pectoralis muscles are stretching which contributes to the chest expansion and heart opening.  The bottom arm is powerfully internally rotated accessing the subscapularis muscles, the deltoids, and the latissimus dorsi as the scapula rotates downward.  Due to the intensity of the shoulder rotations of both arms, it is important not to overmobilize the shoulder joint to achieve the bind.  A strap can be used to open the shoulders gradually and maintain freedom of movement in the neck and head. 

Gomuksasna provides an opportunity for us to see how we are nourishing our own hearts and how willing we are to open that space to others.  In practicing this asana, our resistances and limitations often evidence themselves first, but with patient and sustained practice, we are able to move through these spaces to find freedom.  As our practice of Gomukasana evolves, we find in our lives that there is much more freedom in opening the heart than in moving through the world with our heads in the lead.  We experience directly that sustenance and sustainability are always within us, and the more we tap into that knowing the more easily we can open our hearts to the world.

Copyright, reprinted with permission.