Living in the Lotus of the Heart

by Morgan Webert

All week I’ve come into the studio and smiled at the sign on our lovely beauty therapists door: “ If you lived in your heart, you’d be home now.” This sweet phrase and all the hearts floating around for Valentine’s Day got me wondering what a life lived in the home of the heart is really all about. Serendipitously, I came upon a beautiful passage about the heart from the Chandoyga Upanishad, one of the oldest Upanishads dating from the Vedic Brahmana period (700-800 BCE).

3600688834_7570452704“In the city of Brahman, which is your body, there is the heart center. And within this heart center there is a little house in the form of a lotus. With in this little lotus house there dwells that which is to be sought after, inquired about and realized. What is it that dwells in the little lotus house in the heart center? What is it that should be sought after, inquired about and realized? Even as large as the universe outside, is the universe in the lotus of the heart. Whatever is outside is within the lotus of the heart. The sun, the moon, the lightening and stars. Whatever is in the macrocosm is in the microcosm.”

In other words, we can find the entire world with all of its wisdom and wonder when we listen to our hearts. More importantly, we discover our attitude toward this vast universe. Do we treat the mirrored world around us with the same care we treat our home and heart? Bhakti Yogis certainly do.

Bhakti Yoga is one of four traditional forms of yoga, often called the yoga of love and devotion. Bhakti yogis devote themselves to recognizing the divine in EVERYTHING and giving loving compassion to EVERYTHING. This is their entire practice. No wild poses or strange breathing techniques, simply every moment acknowledging divinity in the world around them and falling madly in love with it.

How, I’ve asked myself, can I see the divine and fall in love with my moments of struggle and frustration? Easy to find a piece of chocolate divine, but a disappointment, physical pain or simply mundane tasks, where is the divine in that? So I thought more about the word Divine. When we use it as an adjective it implies that something is god-like or celestial. When we use it as a verb however, it means discovering, intuiting or predicting something. As in a divining rod to find water or metals.

imagesWow, I thought, this means that the process of discovery IS godlike. It might not always be easy, it may take some time and effort, but as Bhakti yogis believe the attitude of inquiry will lead us to seeing god in all things, and as we do we’ll fall head over heels in love with everything.

Really, Hatha Yoga practice also teaches us this. We look at ourselves, we inquire into our sensations, thoughts, feelings, we use our mind like a divining rod and discover. Pain or discomfort might be the motivating factor that first brings us to a yoga practice, but this feeling of falling in love with ourselves and world is what brings us back again and again to the practice of Yoga.

As most of us know, Yoga means union, and the discovery of this union our ultimate goal in the practice. When we live in the lotus flower of the heart we seek after, inquire about and realize this unity. By connecting to the microcosm of ourselves we connect to the macrocosm that we live within.

Serenity, Courage and Wisdom in the Sadhana Pada

by Morgan Webert

I’ve just returned to the Northern Beaches after six months away and am glowing with joy to be back!  It’s always interesting to leave somewhere and come back again, to see and hear about all that has changed and notice all that’s remained the same. As I’m catching up with people I keep hearing them say “so much has happened” in a tone that implies they’re surprised at how much has changed in six months. And in these moments I’m reminded how easily we overlook the change in our life as it is happening because it so often occurs subtly and slowly. But the fact that life changes is, after all, about the only thing in life that won’t ever change.

I recently began a nine month yoga anatomy course with renowned author Leslie Kaminoff, and in one class we discussed how much the breath can teach us about our attitude toward change, particularly when we frame it with our yoga practice. When it comes to breath we are generally either in a state of ease and flow, restriction and resistance or conscious intention and effort. Likewise, in every moment life is changing, and we can be in either a state of ease, resistance or conscious engagement with these changes.  Often the way we breath in a situation correlates to how we think and feel about that situation.

So how do we frame this with regards to yoga practice? Let’s first remember that yoga is a practice, implying continuous repetition. We don’t just do it once and reach samadi enlightenment. We must come back to our practice again and again in order to cultivate the qualities we aspire towards. And once we have these qualities we must continue to practice in order maintain them. A constant dance with the continues changes of life.

ImageOur great guide for Yoga practice is the Sadhana Pada of the Yoga Sutras.  Sadhana means practice and Pada means foot or chapter in this case.  In this chapter, written 2000 years ago, Patanjali outlined a path of yoga practice (kriyas) accessible for the average person like you or I, the landowner as they used to say. These guidelines remain very applicable today.  Patanjali begins the chapter with three requirements for a yoga practice: tapah, svadhyaya and ishvarapranidhanani (II.1).  Tapah means intensity (fire) in practice. Svadhaya means personal, self study and application of the knowledge. Isvara refers to the omniscient self, or god within and pranidhanani means surrender or perfect aligning of attention.

These requirements encompass the yogic attitude toward the inevitable and constant changing of life, and leads us on a path of peace and liberation.  These requirements, as Leslie Kaminoff so astutely pointed out, are just like the famous serenity prayer.  Ishvarapranidana, surrender to the god within, grants us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.  Tapah, fire and dedication in practice, grant us the courage to change the things we can.  And svadhyaya, self study, gives us the wisdom to know the difference.

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no gain in pain, practicing sthira sukham asana

During my teacher training I remember one very interesting lecture where our guruji put up a comparative list showing how Yog Asana was different from other forms of exercise.  One of the most significant points on this list said that Yoga does not follow the “no pain no gain” moto. If anything it follows the opposite.  Now, the opposite doesn’t mean avoiding challenge or that you should never feel discomfort.  Rather it means we are not trying to generate pain but instead trying to generate comfort, even when in uncomfortable and challenging situations.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes an asana as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha (YS 2.46). Image Sthira means alert steadiness and sukha means comfort.  In every posture, and truly every moment, our practice is geared toward finding these two qualities. I know many of my students have found this suggestion almost laughable as I’m asking them to twist or bend into some new awkward posture.  I can see their worried faces exclaiming, “How am I supposed to find comfort in this position?” 

One way to better understand comfort, sukha, is by looking at its opposite, duhkha.   Desikachar says duhkha is best described as a feeling of being restricted, a certain state of mind in which we experience limitation of our possibilities to act and understand creating a disturbed feeling within. Many factors lead to duhkha and work in us as forces that reduce our space and freedom, ultimately limiting us.  The goal is always to eliminate duhkha by keenly observing the play of these forces within and reducing limitation.

Eric Shiffman, author of Moving into Stillness, describes this process of observation and adjustment as playing the edges.  We have both physical and mental edges that when pushed lead us into discomfort.  In yoga we intentionally push on these edges, not to generate pain, but to gradually reduce limitations.  Shiffman says, “Your skill in yoga has little to do with your degree of flexibility or where your edges happen to be. Rather, it is a function of how sensitively you play your edges, no matter where they are.”

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Krishnamacharya in pincha mayurasana with padmasana variation. Yoga teaches us to gradually dissolve our limitations not through pain, but by reducing pain and learning to find sthira (steadiness) and sukha (comfort) in challenging situations.

The key here is sensitivity.  If we push at our limitations too hard we end up creating more duhkha in the form of pain, anxiety, strain or stress.  If we don’t work with our limitations at all, over time they close in on us, again creating more duhkha.  We aim to create a certain level of intensity within that grabs our attention making us alert (sthira), then use our breath to calm the mind and body and find a level of comfort and joy in the intensity (sukha).

We gain little from pain, but a lot from intensity, specifically when learning how to take the pain out of an intense experience.  The more we practice experiencing intensity without generating duhkha in the safety of a yoga class, the greater our capacity to deal with intensity will be in all aspects of life.  That includes unexpected intense experiences as well as intense love and happiness.  Gradually our bodies and minds open and strengthen, and our limitations, rather than closing in on us, dissolve.

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to be upside down or not to be, inversions and their implications

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Salamba Sarvangasana

This week in my yoga foundations class we’ll focus on preparing for and potentially moving into Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana), so a little discussion on inversions is due.  Shoulder Stand as well as Head Stand (Salamba Sirsasana) are somewhat like the poster children of inversion poses because the body stacks so nicely upside down.  But these poses, while very beneficial and often referred to as the queen and king of poses, are not the only ones that provide the many benefits of inverting. In fact, in many cases these poses may bring more harm to the body than good, so it is always wise to proceed slowly with caution, explore alternatives and variations, listen to your body and choose the posture which gives most benefit and least strain.

What are inversions and why do we practice them anyway?  An inversion includes any posture where the heart is above the head, and can be as simple as standing forward fold (Uttanasana) or as strenuous as handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana).  There are mild or half inversions, where the feet still rest on the ground, as well as full inversions where the feet reach toward the sky.  

In general, the benefits of inverting come from flipping around the pressure of gravity on the body.  As Iyengar teacher Yoko Yoshikawa  so nicely put it, “the human body is sensitive to the fluctuations of gravity because it consists of more than 60 percent water. From the skin in, the body is dense with cells, floating in a bath of intercellular fluid. A complex network of vessels weaves in and around every cell, steadily moving fluids through valves, pumps, and porous membranes, dedicated to transporting, nourishing, washing, and cleansing.”

ImageHere are some major benefits of turning the body upside down:

  • Aids with venous return (brings blood in the extremities back to the heart), which can alleviate varicose veins, hemorrhoids and edema (swelling in the legs and feet), as well as generally improve circulation.
  • Increases lymphatic flow and by doing so improve immune system functioning. 
  • Increase blood flow to brain and facial muscles. 
  • Many yogic texts (Iyengar, Satyanada) state that inversions bring calm and clarity to our mind.
  • Shoulder stand in particular flushes the thyroid glad with fresh blood, activating it and increasing efficiency. The thyroid gland (located at the front of the throat) secretes hormones that regulate metabolism as well as other processes.
  • Improve oxygenation of lower lung lobes by reducing pressure of gravity and fluid accumulation in lower lungs.

 While the benefits of inversions are numerous, so are the precautions and contraindications. Mild inversions such as forward fold or downward dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) are generally safe for most practitioners.  Strenuous inversions such as shoulder stand and headstand place a fair bit of pressure on the neck and head, requiring strength and flexibility to be done properly and safely.

Here are some precautions and contraindications for inversions:

  • Avoid strong or long inversions if you have high blood pressure or other heart ailments.
  • People with weak blood vessels in the eyes, detached retna or glaucoma should avoid long inversions, and pay attention to blood pressure in eyes.
  • If you have cervical spondylosis or other cervical vertebra (neck) injuries, a. always use a blanket under the shoulders for viprita karani, shoulder stand and if needed setubandha (bridge), and b. avoid shoulder stand or only practice after consulting an experienced yoga teacher.
  • If you are pregnant or menstruating avoid full inversions. There is a chance of causing endometriosis if done while menstruating.

For any inversion where you are laying on your back and then lift the feet or hips up I recommend always practicing with at least two folded blankets under your shoulders. This allows the neck to maintain its natural curve and puts the weight of the body into the shoulders rather than the neck. 

My favorite inversion is Viprita Karani because you get all the benefits without the strain.  You can practice this pose in the middle of the room supporting your hips with your hands, or with the feet up the wall and bolsters under the hips.

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back bend into boldness

When I think back to some of my first yoga classes I remember the absolute frenzy back bending would send me into.  I hated them! Especially in full wheel pose (Urdhva Dahanurasana) or camel pose (Ustrasana) I felt like I couldn’t breath, was sure to break my neck or dislocate my shoulder, my low back felt pinched and I experienced waves of nausea.  Now, that doesn’t sound too appealing, but I’m telling you with all honestly that back bends, and particularly the two mentioned above, are now some of my favorite poses.

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Why, you ask, what changed? When I started practicing yoga my posture was well on its way to assuming the student’s studying-shoulders-whatever-man-slouch. On top of that, my attitude become much more closed and guarded, I didn’t want to feel vulnerable especially because at 20 living on my own I realized I was.  My mental and physical habits created a collapsing of the chest and rolling in of the shoulders, and when my yoga teacher asked me to drastically do the opposite, it challenged me both physically as well as psychologically.  Because of that challenge these are the poses from which I’ve learned some of my most valuable lessons.  To move slowly into deep opening, breath calmly in the face of fear, and stay patiently even when I want to run away because all good things take time. I learned to allow huge physically/emotional releases to move through my body without intellectualizing them, and ultimately I learned that a strong open heart will protect me more than a guarded one.

Backbends include any posture where the spine arches backwards, opening the chest and stretching theabdomen.  A direction of movement uncommon for most adults, and for that reason these postures can feel particularly awkward and difficult.  But, also because this direction of movement is uncommon, back bending provides great benefits and creates balance in our body by countering the excessive forward folding we do (i.e. hunching over a desk or steering wheel or child).  On a physical level, backbends will strengthen the back muscles, create more space in the chest and lungs, stretch and tone the internal organs, and in many back-bending postures strengthen the legs and shoulders.

Opening the front of our body also has energetic significant, and we’ve learned by now that Yoga is all about optimizing the flow of energy( prana) through the body. We present ourselves to the world with the front of our body.  We all observe through body language that an open chest and upright posture shows confidence and courage.  Chest opening also activates Anahata, the heart chakra, and the power of Love that comes from this center.  As such, practicing back bends can generate within you these feelings of courage, heart opening love and confidence.  It is not uncommon for a wave of emotions to follow back bending.

Unfortunately, backbends are also some of the most common postures to result in injury when practiced incorrectly or with too much ego.  Because these poses often look quite glamorous there is a tendency for people to push themselves too far too quick, and then strain muscles in the back or exacerbate pressure on vertebral disks. So here are some tips to keep back bends strong and safe. 

Back bends are about lengthening the spine, not just crunching it backwards.  This requires a strong foundation and grounding downwards as well as maintaining active core abdominal muscles.

Strong foundation and grounding, as we’ve learned from standing postures, aligns the legs and hips and the downward energy makes it easier to grow tall and lengthen the spine.  Like a Marrionette doll if the central downward chord goes slack the doll collapses. So the foundation needs to be strong and even (as in the four corners of the feet). This holds true for back bending done in a kneeling position or on the belly.  Ground down and stabilize the part of the body touching the floor, and lengthen the spine from this center.

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The "Airbag" Effect, from "The Key Muslces of Yoga" Ray Long.

Keeping the core abdominal muscles active (gently pulling the belly in) is an extremely important part of preventing compression in the low back. The Bhanda Yoga Anatomy  picture to the left shows exactly why. By contracting the abdominal muscles the organs press firmly against the internal edge of lumbar vertebrae, stabilizing them and preventing collapse on the external edge of the lumbar spine.

As always, the best way to stay safe is listening to your body, if you feel a nerve twinge or pain in the low back, you’ve gone too far back and need to reestablish your foundation, active the core muscles and then lengthen up and out.

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spinal twists and awakening sushumna

Spinal twists have many musculoskeletal benefits as well as a detoxifying effect on the abdominal organs. Spinal twists strengthen back and abdominal muscles, improve spinal range of motion and alleviate tension in deep spinal muscles. Compression of the abdominal organs in spinal twists pushes blood and metabolic waste out of the tissue, when the twist is released a rush of fresh blood enters the organs, rejuvenating and purifying them. In addition, spinal twists increase our awareness of Sushumna, the primary channel of energy running through the center of the spinal chord.

Twisting postures include movements where we rotate the torso along the vertical accesses of the spine, and can be gentle and restorative or deep and invigoration. Regardless of the intensity of the action we must keep a few principles in mind to keep the spine safe. The first principle is to firmly ground your foundation, especially on the opposite side from which you are twisting. In whatever direction we twist, we need an oppositional counterweight to stabilize the body, creating a stretch or strengthening effect on the intended muscles around the spine.

The second principle is to continuously lengthen the spine from the tailbone to the crown of the head. Lengthening the spine is an important part of maintaining safe alignment of the vertebral joints. Particularly in seated and standing twits the tendency is to collapse forward, which can cause uneven pressure on the vertebral disks or pinch vertebral nerves. It is much easier to start with a tall spine and gradually deepen the twist rather than twist too far and then try to lengthen the spine. If you have a history of herniated disks this is a rule you must follow!

The third principle is to initiate the twist internally, at the base of the spine with the abdominal muscles and feel the peripheral body follow this movement, rather than forcing the spine into a twist with the arms or shoulders. Both lengthening the spine and initiating the twist internally can be aided with our subtle awareness of Sushumna, the line of energy running through the spinal chord.

Sushumna is considered the channel for awakening of spiritual consciousness and the conduit for Kundalini energy (the ultimate aim of Yoga). The energy moving through Sushumna always travels upwards, originating in the first chakra a the base of the tailbone/sacrum, and traveling up through each of the seven charkas until it moves out through the top of the head at the crown chakra. While twisting feel this energy traveling up your spinal chord, creating space and height, and centering your mind.

Finally, twists give us great insight into the ever-important relationship of breath moving through our body. Inhalations will aid in lengthening the spine while exhalations will aid in deepening the twist and compression of the abdomen. Remember, if you’re not breathing your not doing yoga. If the twist restricts your breath too much, back off a bit and allow the muscles to slowly open. If you’re patient you’ll find you can deepen the twist and maintain smooth, even breathing and find a steady and comfortable pose.

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suryanamaskar and following the ujjayi breath

“Think of your body as a musical instrument, a wind instrument. Your breath, accordingly, is the wind through the instrument. As such, it is the single most important aspect of yoga technique. Traditionally considered the primary carrier of prana – life force – your breathing originates deep inside you, radiates outward and then inward, providing a gentle and steady rhythm for movement, stretch and release. Sometimes you will breathe softly, other times with vigor, but the breathing itself will always be a central and governing focus. Proper breathing brings the poses to life, inspires every subtle shift and movement in every yoga posture, and can help center your awareness in your conscious experience of the now.” – Erich Shiffman, Moving Into Stillness

Focusing on your breath anchors your awareness in the moment and in your body. Practicing Yoga is a process of refining your sense of self-awareness, and the first step is to observe the breath. In order to maintain focus on the breath we practice ujjayi (ooh-JAI-yee) breathing. Also known as “victorious breath” it is characterized by an audibly hollow, deep, soft sound coming from a gentle contraction in your throat. Ideally you should maintain smooth, even ujjayi breathing throughout the entire practice.

Use the breath to calm the mind as well as open and steady the body. What ever happens in the mind influences the breath.  Stress and tension cause the breath rate to increase, peace and calm slow the breath rate.  The opposite is also true, slowing the breath rate will bring peace and calm to the mind. As the mind calms, the body will follow, tight muscles will soften and supporting muscles will become more steady.

Breath and postures should be synchronized and complimentary.  All movement should be initiated by breath, making your practice a fluid meditation. Over time you will become skillful at this and breath and movement will become inseparably entwined. Certain movements are done on the inhale and others on the exhale. In general forward folding and twisting are initiated by exhale.  Exhaling deeply will also deepen the forward fold or twist. Lengthening the spine and back bending are initiated by inhales, and like wise deep inhaling will aid in opening the spine and front body.

If you’re not breathing your not doing Yoga.  If your breathing is strained it means you need to adjust the posture to allow for breath, or take a moment to calm your mind.

Suryanamaskar  Surya in Sanskrit means sun, and namaskar means a salutation, “namaste” comes from the same root.  Suryanamaskars, or Sun Salutations, are a key element in asana practice for warming the body and establishing breath movement synchronization.

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