In honor of this month of transitions, the pose for September is vrksasana, tree pose. Tree pose reminds us to actively root and balance as we flex in the face of change. Challenging the assumption that stability is a passive attribute—a personality trait, a gift, or a sudden reward for enlightenment—vrksasana encourages us to see balancing as a continual exercise and a lifelong meditation.
Standing in vrksasana gives us a chance to feel our body respond to an uneven distribution of weight and to reflect on how we stay centered when faced with shifts and imbalances in the world around us. Like the trees that inspire the pose, we spend our lives moving through cycles and negotiating environmental changes. Vrksasana is both an exercise and a metaphor for finding stillness, even as we grow and sway.
We will explore tree pose during the balance series, after the warm-up and strengthening sequences. Tree pose is a great pose for anytime, however, and can help bring a few minutes of stillness to a hectic day. If you are moving into tree pose on your own, begin in standing prayer pose with your hands pressed together in front of your sternum. Take a few breaths to steady yourself and to turn your focus inward. Engage your core muscles to bring your attention to your center. Draw your shoulder blades down your back to open your chest. Lengthen your neck, feeling the crown of your head lift as you press the soles of your feet into the ground.
Once you feel centered and active in your stance, engage your abs again as you turn your right foot out. Shifting your weight, draw your right foot up your standing left leg, keeping your right knee turned out and feeling the sole of your right foot gently sweep up to rest on the inside of your left thigh. While the standing leg should be straight, it's important not to lock the standing knee. Feel the right hip open to stretch the groin while the steady pressure of the right foot gently massages the inside of the left thigh. The abs should stay engaged as the shoulders continue to slide down the back, opening the chest. Keep the chin parallel to the floor and visualize the body's energy moving in opposite directions, rising and rooting at the same time.
Don't worry if you wobble and need to adjust your lifted foot. Balancing is an active process and vrksansana is an exercise in centering physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Keep the breath flowing and let the body adapt to find its natural balance.
If you feel steady enough to explore the pose further, lift the hands up and open them wide. Spread and extend the fingers as you visualize the arms and hands taking the form of branches that channel the body's energy outward into the space around your tree. Feel your weight root into the ground through your standing leg and allow your body to lengthen upward as your ab muscles support your spine.
To obtain the full benefit, perform the pose on both sides. Feel for differences between sides, which could indicate the presence of muscle imbalances or energy blocks. Tree pose reminds us to check in with our bodies and to feel for signs of unease before they bring disease.
Most importantly, approach tree pose with a light heart. Don't brace yourself, embrace yourself as you find your balance. Enjoy the interplay between activity and stillness. Take inspiration from the trees, which stay steady while they sway.
Rising out of the grass at dusk, the asana of the month for July is tittibhasana, firefly pose. Firefly is a core strengthening, hamstring lengthening exercise in lightness and balance. Providing a poignant metaphor for life, it challenges us to develop enough strength in our core to allow us to float.
During class, we will move into firefly in the middle of our practice. It's important for our leg and back muscles to be warm and for our core muscles to be engaged before we float into it. If you are exploring firefly on your own, be sure to warm up well, and please be aware that this pose is not recommended for yogis with wrist, elbow, or shoulder injuries. Also note that this pose carries some risk of falling. Yogis with brittle bones or lumbar disc injuries may want to take special care or avoid firefly entirely.
To move into firefly, squat with your feet a little wider than your shoulders. Lean forward, bringing each thigh over the upper arm on its side. With the weight still on the feet, shimmy the hands outward until they are in line behind the outer edge of each foot, fingers pointing forward, thumbs pointing in. Slowly shift your weight forward onto your upper arms, while engaging your ab muscles and hip flexors to support your lower body. Keep your chin parallel to the floor and imagine sending energy out through the top of your head and the balls of your feet.
If you are new to this pose, take your time establishing your balance. This is one of those poses that imparts benefits on the practitioner even if it develops slowly. Just getting into the position will stretch the leg muscles and strengthen the abs. Don't force it. Eventually, the legs will rise naturally when the core muscles have grown strong.
As you experiment with firefly this month, imagine floating above the grass. Embrace the feeling the air beneath you and explore how it accentuates your weightlessness, your balance, and your freedom.
In celebration of the summer solstice, the asana of the month for June is hasta uttanasana. While hasta translates as "hand" and uttan means "extreme reaching," will we call this pose sun stretch to honor the symbolic moment in sūrya namaskāra, sun salutations, when the sun peaks. Hasta uttanasana is the instant when the body can stretch no further, the lungs can fill no more, and expansion spurs release.
Just as inhalation requires exhalation, hasta uttanasana teaches us that fullness must give way to emptiness. Moving through this metaphor teaches us to embrace life's cyclical nature and shows us that we can expand and contract without attachment. When the mind and body internalize this motion, we learn to see beyond the flux. The sun goes up. The sun goes down. The days get longer. The days get shorter. The light grows. The light fades. Through it all, we fill and empty, adapt and change. With practice, we can distill the constants within ourselves, the eternal truths of the universe, so that we embrace change and feel energized by life's transitions.
As we celebrate the days building up to the solstice, hasta uttanasana reminds us to fill and reach, empty and fold with equanimity. The Vedic philosophers urge that equanimity will let us transcend the apparent duality that surrounds us. It will liberate our hearts from temporal illusions so that we can find union with the True, the Real, the Eternal, the Divine.
Since hasta uttanasana is part of the sun cycle series, we will explore it several times during class, refining the pose as we revisit it. Performing the series with full attention begins with focusing on the breath, the catalyst for all vinyasa motion. Sun salutations are a beautiful reminder that the breath—not the mind—carries us through the practice. Gentle rhythmic breathing sustains the flow, supports our body through transitions, and lulls the brain into alpha wave activity that relaxes everything. Alpha wave activity enhances yoga because it increases a sense of well-being that separates activity from effort. Entering this state of serenity lets us strengthen without strain, balance without tension, deepen without force.
Moving through the sun salutation cycle, focus on the breath without isolating it. The breath should move freely, carrying the body with it. Allow each inhalation and exhalation to usher in a new transition. Sustain the breath through every transition so that it supports the body between poses. Time the movement of air to coincide with each arrival in the next pose. With practice, the body will naturally sync the movements to the breath, and the sun salutation cycle will become an extension of breathing.
As we celebrate the solstice with hasta uttanasana, fill the body with breath as you rise from forward bend. Let the sensation of fullness expand from the lungs until it radiates out from the chest, elongating the spine, lifting the chin, and extending the arms overhead. The back may arch gently if this extension grows naturally out of the standing posture, but it's important not to force the body to bend backward. Instead of pushing to reach back, send the energy all the way through the fingertips and out the top of the head. It will light up the heart, throat, third eye, and crown chakras on the way.
In the days leading up to the solstice, take some time every morning to salute the sun, the source of all creation and potential on Earth. With practice, sun salutations will free your attention instead of diverting it, and the asanas will become part of a moving meditation that transcends the body and unites it with the universe.
Just in time for the start of a new moon, the pose for May celebrates the super moon that lit up the sky earlier this month. Ardha chandrasana, or half moon pose, divides the body's efforts equally between balance and strengthening.
Derived from ardha, meaning half, and chandra, meaning moon, adrha chandrasana radiates with the symbolic power of the Hindu lunar deity, Chandra. In the Hindu cosmology, Chandra is the bringer of fertile morning dew, the protector of rabbits, the lord of plants, and the source of soma, the juice of eternal life.
Here, the moon represents mind, imagination, emotion, sensitivity, and the natural ebb and flow of life. In Vedic thought, the waxing moon brings good fortune and encourages action, while the waning moon warrants caution and reflection. Drawing on this imagery, half moon pose dares us to pause on the cusp between that shift in phases. It challenges us to hang in space and reflect the light around us so that we shine steadily, even when our skies are dark.
In class, we will move into half moon after the warrior sequence, at the opening of our balancing series. If you are practicing on your own, enter ardha chandrasana after several sun salutations and the warrior poses. It's best to have also moved through triangle and extended triangle, which lengthen the hamstrings, rotate the pelvis, and thus open the muscles in the trunk, chest, and back.
To move into half moon, begin in extended triangle, with the legs in a wide stance, front and back feet in line. The toes on the front foot should point straight ahead while the toes of the back foot should point outward, almost 90 degrees. Shift the lower arm from its position on the ankle, reaching it forward about six inches ahead of the front foot. Move the body's weight forward until the front leg is straight and the hand rests six inches in front of it on the floor. Firm up the abs to draw the center of gravity over the standing leg, which should be perpendicular to the torso.
Proper alignment will channel the upper body's weight into the leg and leave the fingers of the lower hand to gently stabilize without strain. This will permit the back leg to float up into the air, allowing the pelvis to rotate as the chest opens and the upper hand lifts toward the sky. Lengthen the spine by pressing outward from the heel of the lifted leg, while gently stretching the tailbone and the occipital bone in opposite directions. While the pose does engage major muscle groups in both legs, the emphasis should be on feeling light and long. Paradoxically, the key to achieving balance and relaxation lies in redirecting the force of the body's weight away from the center. Lengthening through the lifted arm, the back of the head, and the floating leg creates a sensation of suspension, a feeling of hanging, almost weightless in space. While the pose is active, there should be effort but not strain.
Yogis who are exploring the pose for the first time or are in the early stages of developing the posture may wish to use a block under the lower hand to extend its reach to the floor. While the block will make it easier to balance, it's important not to press too much weight into the hand. The fingertips are only meant to stabilize the body, not to channel any significant amount of weight.
It's also important not to lock the knee on the standing leg. While the force of the body will be pressing downward, it's best to imagine pulling up from the ankle, keeping the knee straight but soft. The focus on pulling up from the ankle will engage the groin and shift some of the burden from the quads and lower leg.
It's helpful to try the pose against a wall to feel the perfect alignment of the pelvis, back, and lower leg. When the body is in the optimal position, the hips will be stacked, the back will be long and flat against the wall, the shoulder blades will be drawn down along the spine, and the floating leg will hover in line with the torso, with the flexed foot higher than the shoulders. The body should form one long, straight line from the back of the head to the airborne heel. The weight on the lower hand should be minimal, and the standing leg should be gently engaged.
The head may turn to lift the gaze upward. If this causes any strain or discomfort in the neck, however, the head may remain in a neutral position, with the eyes looking out. Yogis who are just beginning to explore this pose or who have shoulder injuries may also opt to keep the upper arm bent, with the hand resting gently on the upturned hip.
While you hang in half moon, enjoy the sense of suspension as you take a brief time-out from the constant wax and wane of life. Let any pent up emotional energy flow until it finds its own level and settles into stillness. Dangling in space, without feeling any need to grip or struggle, take a moment to reflect the light of the universe and to appreciate how your presence returns its shine.
Translated variously as powerful, wild, intense, frightening, and fierce, the first part of utkatasana's name captures the nature of the pose. Selected as the pose of the month for April, utkatasana evokes the power of spring, a season in which new life roots and shoots at once. Growing in opposite directions at the same time, the seed that lay dormant through the winter leaps up while planting itself deeper into fertile ground.
This month, utkatasana reminds us of the determination needed for new growth. It challenges us to dig deep and reach high, finding truth in that vital opposition. If we have the courage to balance at the edge of this paradox, finding stillness and release, utkatasana rewards us with increased strength and stability. It stimulates growth and clears away the emotional and mental blocks that set illusory limits on our potential to spring forth. Best of all, utkatasana generates a budding energy in our center that blooms throughout the body as we flower through our day.
While we will enter utkatasana at the end of the warm-up series during class, the pose is a great way to wake and tone the body during a break from sitting or working at a desk. If you are planning to enter utkatasana on your own, take care to coax the body through some gentle stretches that open the back and shoulders. Also, be sure to engage the muscles of the core to prepare the trunk to support the torso's weight.
To move into utkatasana, place the feet parallel and together, pressing the whole foot into the ground. Next, engage the mudra bandha, which corresponds to the muscles of the pelvic floor. Draw the muscles from the navel to the perineum up and in, tilting the top of pelvis just slightly forward of perpendicular to the floor. Keeping the abdominal muscles firm, engage the quads and glutes. Once the pelvic floor, the abs, the quads, and the glutes are all engaged, lower slowly into a seat by gently bending the knees and pressing the heels into the floor.
Once you find yourself in a seat, balance the pelvis by tucking the tailbone under slightly until the muscles of the low back release. Take a deep breath and extend your arms in front of you. When you feel steady, inhale and let your breath lift your hands. If balanced and properly aligned, yogis looking for an additional challenge may shift their weight back from here to bring their knees over their ankles.
Balancing here, harness the opposing forces that energize the pose. Ground the body actively by rooting through the feet, but let gravity pull the pelvis down to release the muscles of the lower back. Keep the ribs relaxed, but draw the abdominal muscles up and in to support the spine. Breathe as the pose's dynamic forces feed the budding energy that sprouts in the body's core. As this power builds, draw the shoulder blades down to release the upper back. Mindful not to arch the back and let the lower ribs pop out, lift the chest slightly as the arms shoot toward the sky. Engage the muscles at the top of the arms to relax the shoulders and relieve any strain on the neck. Finally, lift the chin slightly to gaze up at the fingertips. If this causes any discomfort, lower the gaze to relieve any tension in the neck.
Breathing deeply, feel the power of this paradoxical pose center and strengthen the body. Focus inward and seek stillness to clear away the mental noise. Growing long and strong in opposite directions, shoot up and root down with the breath, using each inhale to lift and each exhale to ground.
After a few breaths, release utkatasana and feel the budding energy bloom throughout the body. As we deepen and refine the pose this month, may our roots grow stronger as our efforts blossom and lighten every limb.
The pose of the month for March celebrates the pisces in all of us and awakens the blue chakra of personal expression, spirituality, and transformation.
Matsyasana, fish pose, stimulates the 5th chakra, located in the throat. Associated with the color blue and named for purity in the form of wisdom or Visuddha, the throat chakra is the body's gateway to spirituality, expression, compassion, and will. Too often neglected, this chakra bridges the divide between our inner and outer world. It shapes our circumstances and creates the conditions that manifest in our lives. Caring for the throat chakra promotes clarity, creativity, vitality, and balance, while blockages bring miscommunication, frustration, impatience, and addiction.
Anatomically, the throat chakra encompasses the trachea, larynyx, and thyroid, as well as the cervical and brachial nerves that branch off of the vertebrae at the top of the spine. Ancient yogic texts call fish pose a cure for all diseases. Providing relief for fatigue, constipation, anxiety, congestion, and back pain, fish gently lengthens the spine, opens the throat, and stretches the front body, expanding the abdominal and intercostal muscles while elongating the psoas. Fish is a special gift for anyone who hunches over a computer all day. It energizes the body by stimulating the thyroid and improves posture by strengthening the intercostal muscles and decompressing the vertebrae in the upper spine.
In class, we will enter fish after leaving our inversion. If you are practicing independently, you can find your way to fish anytime, as long as your back and chest muscles are warm. If you are new to the pose, take care to feel for any signs of strain in your neck. If you experience discomfort in your neck or throat, reduce the angle of the extension until you feel at ease. You can also place a rolled blanket under the back of your head. Simply place the blanket in the space where your neck arches away from the floor.
To find your way into fish, lay flat on your back with your arms pressed to your sides. Bend your elbows and draw your arms back, sliding your hands, palms down, under your buttocks as you lift your pelvis just barely off the floor. Your glutes should be resting on the backs of your hands with your elbows supporting your weight and your forearms drawn in under the sides of your torso. When you feel steady here, inhale, draw your shoulder blades down, and lift your chest. Continue pressing into your elbows and forearms to take the weight off of your spine. Use your breath to float the ribs up as you arch back, gently extending your neck as you release the crown of your head to the floor. Engage your thighs and press your toes away to keep the pose active. Follow your breath for several moments and meditate on the throat chakra, opening this gateway to free your voice, speak your truth, and transform your life.
Click here to save a turtle egg!
In honor of La Tortuga Verde's turtle sanctuary, the pose of the month for February is kurmasana. Traditionally, kurmasana translates as tortoise pose, but to send some love and awareness to endangered sea turtles everywhere, let's call it turtle pose this month.
I didn't know much about sea turtles before I went to El Salvador to finalize plans for our March retreat. Upon arrival, however, our host Tom was quick to introduce me to the latest hatchlings, which had just emerged from their protected beds. Every time turtles return to La Tortuga's beach, Tom and his staff collect their eggs, moving them to the resort's sheltered nursery, where they're safe from poaching (and scrambling, too) until they hatch.
Tom's dedication to the turtles is quite moving. Not only has he devoted a portion of the resort's beachfront property to the protected beds, he even buys stolen eggs from poachers to save them from the local market. Paying as much as $3 per dozen, Tom returns the eggs to the sanctuary's fenced nursery, where the baby turtles can grow and hatch in peace. Since all varieties of sea turtles are endangered, Tom's purchases are a direct investment in the survival of this sacred species.
Thanks to Tom's work, La Tortuga's sanctuary is a small island of safety in an ocean of manmade dangers that threaten these kindred creatures en masse. In the waters of Nicaragua and Mexico, which surround El Salvador, a black market trade in meat and shells kills an estimated 35,000 turtles each year. And the development of Central American coastlines is quickly destroying the delicate dunes that turtles need to shelter their eggs. Even at officially protected beaches, electric lights on land confuse hatchlings, which emerge at night and find the ocean by following the lighter sky above the sea.
While Tom's hatchlings face constant peril once they reach the waves, the turtles who return to La Tortuga's shore will have their eggs protected as long as the eco-resort's nurseries survive. Since the turtle holds a spiritual place in the human imagination, Tom's work keeps something sacred in us alive as well.
Translating the turtle's symbolism into movement, kurmasana is a reflection of this animal's serene solitude and strength. Wearing its home on its back, the turtle finds refuge within. Like its namesake, kurmasana directs our focus inward to explore the thoughts and creativity within our core. Rolling our backs up and over into a protective shell, the pose also celebrates our enduring strength. In Hindu mythology, the world rests on the shell of a divine cosmic turtle that, depending on the version, may or may not be supporting an elephant quartet as well. Imagine how strong and patient that cosmic turtle must be! As we move through our practice, its example encourages us to appreciate our own fortitude and endurance.
In a colorfully apocryphal tale, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was once heckled by an old woman who rejected his scientific explanation of the universe. After his astronomy lecture, the old lady declared, "What you told us is rubbish. The world is flat plate that sits on the back of giant tortoise." When Russell asked her what supported the tortoise, the old woman shook her head and said, "You're very clever young man, but it's turtles all the way down!" Whatever the configuration of the cosmos, it's turtles all the way in for us this month, as we explore the wonders of our inner space.
If you plan to enter turtle in your personal practice, place it at the end of a warm-up and strengthening series, when your back and leg muscles are warm and ready to lengthen. In class, we will move into the pose toward the end of our floor series, finding ourselves seated with our legs out in front of us. From here, we will widen the distance between our feet as far as possible as we bend our knees slightly. Our heels will rest on the floor as we lean forward from the hips, activating our quads to prevent a strain on the lower back. Moving into the forward bend, we will place our hands under our knees. If our muscles are limber enough, we will then lean forward and slide our arms outward, under our legs, until our elbows are nearly in line with the backs of our knees.
For yogis who can go further, we can deepen the pose by sliding the heels forward and straightening the legs. From here, the body can continue to bend forward until the forehead or chin rests on the floor. Very flexible yogis may then wrap the arms around the back, lacing the fingers of the hands together as they rest on the floor, under the glutes.
Yogis who encounter turtle for the first time this month may find it difficult initially. Turtle teaches us to feel for tightness in our hamstrings, our groin muscles, our erectors, and our hips. Even when our muscles are warm, we may find our range of motion is limited in the beginning. It's important not to force ourselves into the pose. Instead, draw your attention inward to sense the tightness in your muscles. Focus on using your breath to gradually relax the body into a gentle fold. Deep meditative breathing will encourage alpha wave activity in the brain, which increases the body's sense of relaxation and well-being. Wherever you find yourself in turtle, peaceful breathing will enhance the pose's calming, fortifying effect. As our practice evolves over the course of the month, you may eventually find your muscles lengthening, relaxing further with each voyage all the way in.
In honor of the birth of the new year, January's pose of the month is Ananda Balasana, blissful baby pose. A peaceful floor pose, blissful baby lengthens the spine, stretches the groin, and opens the hips. It relieves stress and fatigue, improving the body's energy flow by creating a closed circuit where the hands and feet unite.
While gentle, blissful baby is a powerful pose that can stimulate electric sensations in the body. It is not uncommon to experience the kind of twitch or slight tingle that comes when tight muscles approach the point of release. These gentle, internal fireworks suggest the presence of energy blocks, which cause physical imbalances by forcing the body to compensate for muscle tension, loss of mobility, and a reduction in circulation. Spending time in blissful baby helps remove these blocks by stimulating the spine and peripheral nerves while encouraging blood flow through the muscles. Almost immediately, blissful baby can improve the body's range of motion and relieve seemingly unrelated chronic muscle and back pain.
In class, blissful baby appears at the beginning of the final floor exercises, when the body and mind are fully engaged. If practicing independently, enter blissful baby after the muscles are warm and ready to open. To move into blissful baby, lie on your back and tuck your knees towards your chest on a deep exhale. Filling your body with breath, gently take your feet in your hands, careful to give your hips and low back time to settle and relax into the floor. Allow your knees to open to either side of your torso while your lower legs extend up. Your shins should end up perpendicular to the floor. Knees and ankles vertically aligned, your legs should form a gentle right angle at the knee. Keeping your spine long and your pelvis flat on the floor, slowly relax to let your arms to hang from the balls of your feet. Your hands will naturally exert some downward pressure that flexes each foot. Your toes, in return, should press up slightly into your fingers, creating a touch of dynamic tension as the energy circuit closes.
As the body settles into the pose and the muscles begin to open, allow the thighs to relax down toward the torso, lengthening the muscles in the hips and groin. Elongate the spine by pressing the tail bone into the floor as the chin tucks slightly, easing the base of the head away from the hips.
Hold the pose for a minute or two, feeling the breath and energy as it flows through the body. Stay present and survey your thoughts. The hips and groin are so essential for stability that they often tighten up from the physical and emotional stress that accompanies our heavy investment in staying upright. Take a few moments in blissful baby to monitor and release any unnecessary tension that may collect here. Anxieties about weakness and rejection, along with the drive to overcompensate by competing, pushing, and defensively "holding your ground" may all affect flexibility and energy balance in this region.
Most importantly, give yourself the space to renew and open in this pose. Take a moment to be an infant again, soft and open, full of love and wonder for the world.
Rushing around, decorating, visiting, entertaining, shopping, wrapping, traveling—it's hard not to feel swept away as the energy around us builds to a frenzied climax in this last month of the year. With so much vying for our time and attention, we can start to feel exhausted and overwhelmed before the holidays are even here. Every December I watch my students speed into class and dart out again, leaping out of savasana to dash off to the next obligation. And those are the ones I see, as opposed to the yogis who vanish until the new year.
Whatever our inner emotional state going into December, the commotion around us hits a fever pitch in the city. Crowds swell. Quiet fades. Advertising encroaches. Needs, desires, hopes, and wishes charge the air with an emotional electricity. It's a frenetic energy fed by the alternating current of social conditioning and commercial marketing. If we don't take care of ourselves, holiday expectations can exhort us and extort us until eventually we're spent.
Masquerading as a pleasant distraction, this holiday programming can cause spiritual static and emotional distortion. The emphasis on outward fulfillment, happiness, perfection, and excess can raise specters of anxiety, disappointment, guilt, and want. This irony isn't lost on brain scientists, who annually serve up a feast of research suggesting that the happiest time of the year often isn't.
Luckily our practice can help. Giving ourselves time to breathe and stretch every day can help us break through the commercial messaging, turn our focus inward, check in with our feelings, embrace our circumstances, find our balance, and manage our stress and expectations. The end of another year naturally brings mixed feelings and anxious energy. There's so much to do and so much that will inevitably be left undone. There's so much to share and celebrate. And sometimes there are matters to release and mourn. It's a lot to process, but with yoga we need not sort it out alone. When we practice, we find union with ourselves and with each other. Reaffirmed by this togetherness, we can channel our year-end energy without giving into seasonal madness. Rebalanced, we can find calm within the churning crowd. Relieved, we can shrug off suffocating expectations. Reminded, we can love ourselves and each other as we are right now.
The pose of the month for December is camatkarasana, which translates literally as "the ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart." I call it starfish and chose it because it reminds me of the sacred star shape that appears across traditions at this time of year, the symbol of a light that comes from the heavens yet shines from within. Like ustrasana, camel pose, which we celebrated in November, starfish is a heart-opener and a heart-offering. It challenges us to move from our center, to balance outward from our core, to express ourselves freely, and to share our heart-light with the world.
My wish for the holidays is that camatkarasana offers everyone in the TogetherYoga community nothing less than its namesake, that it brings forth in all of us an ecstatic unfolding of our enraptured hearts--and that we find our hearts enraptured not because of sales and gifts and trips and parties, but because we exist, individually and together.
We will practice starfish in class this month, but here's how to find your way into the pose on your own. First, move into a downward dog after a good warm-up sequence. It's important that your muscles have built up some heat and that your back is ready to arch. From downward dog, bring your right knee to your left elbow. Shift your weight onto your right arm as you slide your right leg under your left. Release your left hand from the ground and raise it into the air, lifting your chest and hips as your weight moves onto your left leg. Keep lifting your hips and arching your back as you open your chest to the sky. Imagine your heart beaming its light up at the ceiling. Allow your chin to lift as you lengthen your spine from your shoulders to your hips. Keep reaching out with your left arm to open the muscles that envelop your ribs. Hang there for a few moments and let your heart just shine.
Moving into November, I can't help but notice that the change in seasons has stimulated a host of changes in the body. As the days grow colder and darker, we storm around in a sea of stooped shoulders, instinctively curling inward to conserve the heat in our core. Bracing ourselves against biting chill and icy rain, we let our necks crane forward and our chins tuck down as our shoulders shut our bodies up tight.
Indoors, the seasonal changes continue. Feeling the darkness grow around us, we close instinctively like poppies at dusk. Hunching over our desks as the natural light recedes, we hardly notice how our spine bends and our muscles contract. More often than not, we work long hours under cold blankets of electric light, only barely registering how we slump beneath their florescent weight. Slouching further, sinking deeper, we are virtually unaware of how we compensate until our contortions catch our attention with stiffness and fatigue. In addition to dampening our spirits, ignoring these subtle seasonal changes can contribute to larger physical problems over the course of a lifetime, causing or exacerbating the kind of postural kyphosis and scoliosis that eventually distort the spine.
Luckily, our yoga practice can help, which is why ustrasana—camel pose—takes center stage in class this month. Following our warm up vinyasas, camel comes in the middle of our practice, after our bodies have built up heat. Mindful of our intention to open, we enter camel by kneeling, legs hip width, thighs perpendicular to the floor, hands on the back of the pelvis, palms on either side of the sacrum, fingers pointing down. From here, we press our hands forward into the sides of our pelvic bones to open the low back and lengthen through the tailbone. Finally, we inhale and lift our hearts as we focus on opening the muscles in our front torso, drawing our shoulder blades down to marry gently at the spine. If our spine and necks are flexible enough, we may finish the pose by pressing our palms into our heels as our fingers point toward our toes. As our elbow creases face forward, our chin gradually extends upward to let our gentle gaze float back.
Perfect for balancing out the seasonal effects of hunching forward, camel pose counters kyphosis and scoliosis. It stimulates the thyroid and the nervous system to stave off depression and fatigue. Extending the stretch through the front body also has the added benefit of relieving compression in the abdominal organs to aid digestion.
On an emotional level, each time we engage in camel, we expose our throat, our viscera, and our heart to the world. Opening in these vital areas stimulates an almost cathartic release that allows our energy to circulate more freely and stokes our sense of resilience and well-being.
Spiritually, camel encourages us to lift our hearts and make them an offering to the sun in times of darkness. It reminds us that we don't have to close down and jealously guard our energy. As we open and expand in camel’s graceful arch, we remember that we are always building our own heart light. When we feel that light glow in our bodies, we realize that it’s more than strong enough to keep us warm and light our world.