A favorite teacher shared this in a recent workshop:
“In the will of man there is a power of longing which turns the mist in ourselves into sun.”
Our bodies are temples. Our positive actions are conduits for positive re-action. Our thought forms are pulses of energy with the potential to open hearts. But if we hope to raise our bodies, actions and thoughts to their highest vibration, a place where the catalyst for healing exists we must practice saucha.
Saucha, our first niyama, is purity and cleanliness.
Much like the Western mind considers asana as the first step on their yoga journey we are drawn toward considering physical cleanliness as we begin our practice of saucha. Yet physical cleanliness is not limited to what we see on the surface. When reflecting on saucha and how it pertains to the physical we must also look at how we keep pure that which is within us. What we choose to put in our body is as critical as what we choose to put on our body. How do we source our food, clothes and cosmetics?
Likewise, how do we manage our environment? Do we choose to create a space that aligns with the principle of saucha? My first request to a class that they stack their props mindfully was met with laughter. The second time, when I explained saucha, they still laughed but began to understand. The third time they smiled. And then I watched as blankets were folded, blocks were stored on shelves and bolsters were lined against the wall. It didn’t matter that in ten minutes another class would undo the effort we made to create a clean space. The energetic flow we manifested through our effort supported our practice.
Is it possible to practice saucha in order to create a clean and nurturing emotional environment? One in which mental impurities are washed away? I believe we can. It takes diligence and for that reason I am relieved that we call our yoga a “practice.” My diligence and discipline fail me more times than I want to admit.
Remembering saucha as we observe the world as well as our actions as we move within this world reminds us that it is possible to reframe our thoughts, our words and our behavior even while maintaining the integrity of the ideas we wish to communicate.
“Breath into the space around your kidneys.”
“Breathe into your big toe.”
Ok. Now you’re just trying to be funny.
How many times have you been instructed to take your breath someplace considered physiologically impossible? Yoga teachers give this instruction all the time, but it doesn’t really make any sense, does it? Our breath moves into our lungs. Period.
And no one takes the instruction to breathe into the soles of the feet literally.
Because I’m one of those yoga instructors. I’m one of those instructors who will ask you to breathe into places where the breath doesn’t travel. But I’ve got my reasons.
When I provide the verbal cue to breathe into the back of the ribs I’m asking you to bring your awareness to a specific part of the body in a more efficient way than the cue “relax.”
Furthermore, by breathing into the back during a pose like Balasana (child’s pose), we become attuned to the physiology of breathing. We gain an awareness of the muscles involved. The lungs may be the workhorse of breath, and the diaphragm our ‘third lung’, but there is so much more to consider. Our intercostal muscles, for instance, extend and contract with each breath to move the ribcage. Our internal obliques work in opposition to the contracting diaphragm. The gift of breath – the art of breathing – is more than filling the lungs like a balloon. It is a complex event with an interrelated team of muscles, organs and bones.
So if I ask for the impossible. If I offer the verbal cue “breathe into your kidneys” just go with it. I have my reasons.
I wrote the following essay in June 2014 for an assignment during my Yoga Therapy Training at Niroga Institute in Oakland. More recently I had the chance to discuss the meaning of Aparigraha with the incredible group of women that comprise Samyama’s Book Club. We’re reading Deborah Adelle’s book The Yamas and Niyamas. We cling to more than those things that fit in our hands. We cling to ideas. To emotions. To states of being. Aparigraha reminds us to step back. To soften our physical and spiritual on things that are simple paper tigers.
For the past seven days I have been living the lesson of aparigraha, the fifth of five suggested restraints known as the Yama that Patanjali invites us to practice. An individual who practices aparigraha neither hoards nor clings to possessions, individuals, ideas or ways of being.
Attachment in the form of too many possessions clutters our physical space. We can practice aparigraha in our home environment not by choosing the life of an ascetic (which to me is clinging to a way of being) but by mindful consumption: having what we need but no more, not always buying new, reusing and recycling. I live in a small studio apartment and yet I find my emotional attachment to objects that serve no purpose prevents me from letting go.
Attachment to individuals clutters our thought processes. It can rob us of our autonomy and blur the line between truth and fiction. My friend left for a ten-day visit to see his parents in Israel last week. It was our first time apart for an extended period and his absence, rather than creating space, actually filled my head and heart with stories of my own making. Until I made a conscious effort to step back from the habit of ‘spinning stories’ did I become grounded and focused.
Attachment to ideas clutters our objectivity. The yoga studio where I attended my very first yoga class in 1984 and where I have been teaching for eight years is closing next week. I am attempting to transfer my classes and students to a studio I’ve been teaching at for sixteen months but recently my attachment to what I believe should happen built a wall that prevented me from seeing how it could happen.
Attachment to our way of being clutters our experience of the world. We cling to the words and phrases we use to describe ourselves. Of all the ways attachment might manifest, perhaps our attachment to how we see ourselves is the most important to consider as it relates to yoga therapy.
A client in chronic pain may be afraid to release their attachment to the pain they experience because it is their pain that defines them. Who are they if they are not the individual who always hurts?
As yoga therapists it is important to understand the client’s attachment to the story about their injury and pain. At the same time we must not develop an attachment to the desired outcome. As yoga therapists we might release attachment to the notion of a cure and perhaps shift our focus toward helping the client detach from the story.
In my asana practice it is the space between the poses that holds meaning for me. Like the space between notes or the space between thoughts – it is precious. There is space between silence and sound, too. I experienced this recently when co-teaching a Deeper Realms event at Samyama Yoga Studio. As we settled into our yin shapes Lindsay Armien chanted. It was beautiful and resonant but when she finished and the air settled there was a stunning transition – like that moment the sun sinks on the horizon. All that was left was silence. And it was beautiful and resonant, too.
We’re in our first downward facing dog of the day. I ask students to soften their knees, extend through their spines and then to straighten their legs. When I see too many students fidgeting – ‘walking’ their dog by bending one knee and then the other – I gently remind them to find the stillness in the pose and to appreciate the geometry of the shape. And then I say this:
“…and now press through the pads of your fingers….”
I wish I could count the number of times I offer that simple cue each day. What’s easier to count is the number of times I’ve explained why. Because I don’t remember ever saying why. But it’s simple, really:
I’m trying to protect your wrists.
Pressing through the pads of the fingers and along the outside edge of the thumb helps to distribute our weight evenly across the hand. It prevents us from collapsing our weight onto the heel of the hand and into the wrist joint. In that way, it takes pressure off the wrist.
When we press through the pads of our fingers our forearms engage. There’s an incredible sense of power and lift through the arms that opens the armpits, assists in extending the spine and supports our efforts to lengthen the neck and move the ears away from the shoulders.
Pressing through the pads of the fingers offers an anchor. We ground through the fingers in order to lift. And once we lift we can distribute the energy of downward facing dog along the back line of the body and down the back of the thighs until we find those other bright anchors – the soles of our feet.
When we press through the pads of the fingers our arms are firm, our chest opens and our awareness is drawn to the front line of the body. Our heart can melt toward the floor, our abdomen can be active and we can gently draw up our kneecaps. And then we discover the balanced relationship between the strength of our quads and the stretch in the hamstrings.
And that’s why I offer the verbal cue “…press through the pads of your fingers….”
I told you it was simple. I’m trying to protect your wrists.