Carrying on from last week’s theme, I stumbled upon a Yoga Living article linking the embodiment of various fauna and flora in nature that inspire the names of various yoga poses and the essence of the energy within each. (Link http://asktheyogateacher.com/wp-content/themes/yogalife/sandbox-layouts/images/mediakit/Animal_Nature.pdf)
This got me thinking about the varying levels and directions of our energy within yoga asana work. Compare rabbit pose (restorative) with crow (strengthening). How is energy flowing within each of these and how do we use the breath to assist that flow and direction of energy input and output?
Additionally, within the same pose, e.g. Virabhadrasana (Warrior) I, we can dynamically move into and out of the pose with the breath or we can move into the pose and work within it for several breaths, aiming to increase the full expression of the pose. The level of energy required can vary significantly between these two choices. With the option of working in the pose (relative stillness) there is added intensity and energy expenditure. So the intensity of the breath should reflect this, with deeper and fuller breath on the hold option to help nourish the cells of the body with fresh air, feeding us the energy we need for the pose. And yet often, when the going gets tough, that quality breath can abandon us if we are not mindful of it.
With other poses, the stiller expression can be the more restorative one, naturally renewing the energy within. Think of a supine twist. When we work dynamically from side to side, with legs kept off the floor as they lower to the side, this can be quite demanding, and the twisting action can inhibit that fuller breath. So we need to be more mindful to keep the breath full. When we take a passive supine twist, and let gravity assist us, we aim to surrender into the pose, and we naturally find the breath becomes quieter and more shallow. Where this is toward the end of an asana practice, it can become a good transition out of conscious breath control, helping to prepare the body for the stillness of Savasana.
So within an asana practice, students can be mindful of how their body is handling the effort of a pose or sequence of poses, whether the pose(s) consumes or replenishes energy, and adjust the breath- and perhaps the intensity of the pose- accordingly.
This week we focus our practices on awareness of balancing energies. We are reminded of the translation of Hatha Yoga: Ha- Sun, Tha-Moon and the Ida and Pingala flows of energy in the body. Ida the cooling, moon, left side and Pingala the warming, sun, right side. Pranayama practice begins with observing the flow of air through the nostrils left vs. right before we begin Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and then return to breathing with both nostrils, noticing if anything has changed, if the two sides feel more in balance.
In asana practice we explore opposing forces to energise our poses. In Parsvakonasana, the grounded back foot and extended top hand move in opposition to energise and awaken the whole top side of the body; and the lower body grounds and descends to provide the strong and stable foundation that allows the upper body to lift and extend away from the pelvis, creating space and enervating the asana. We can bring awareness in these asymmetrical poses to any subtle differences one side has from the other and take steps in our personal practice to bring the two sides into better harmony.
When we bring our attention to these opposing flows of energy, we find them everywhere in our practice. We experience how to leverage them to energise and refine familiar poses, and to experience more fully that sense of “effortless effort”.
A new year has begun, but in classes we continue with the Yamas. The first week back after the holidays and Brahmacharya, the fourth Yama, framed our practice. Associations include abstinence as a way to assist with focus and direction. This seemed apt after the indulgences of the festive season. A movement back toward the essential, a return to inner stillness. Classes included a lot of hip openers and some twists to counter all that sitting around and feasting!
The second week of Jan we have come to our final Yama, Aparigraha- non-covetous. There are so many aspects of this Yama with potential for us to work on in our lives and on the mat. In my readings I can across this online article http://www.ekhartyoga.com/blog/aparigraha---practicing-non-attachment which I thought had some nice observations. It highlights the emphasis on simplicity in our lives as an incredibly powerful way of freeing ourselves. We really do have the ability to make bold changes if we are brave enough. Yoga gives us the strength to do this...even though it may take awhile!
By letting go of our attachment to the results of our actions, our minds are freed up enormously to engage with what we are doing at each moment and experience the joy and pleasure of the act itself- as opposed to an end result which may or may not turn out as expected. Time formerly spent on worrying and speculating about the future can be redirected to attending mindfully to the now and how of what we are doing (and maybe why) and executing it with more care and attention which brings with it a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction.
On our mats this week, I am asking students to try to be present with each breath and each movement as something to attend to. Don't be concerned with the end pose. Rather, observe the subtle changes and micro movements that occur with each breath. Choose where to shift the awareness to during a pose, notice where effort is needed and where tension can be released. Listen to the body and adjust your practice accordingly: for some asana, choose whether to move dynamically, or deepen a pose with a more challenging variation. Afterward, reflect on your choices and what has motivated them. As we work the body, we train the mind!
Ruth is a yoga therapist and yoga teacher based in Cheltenham, UK. She emphasises yoga as a tool for well-being, for individuals and in her classes, in person or via zoom.