Contemplation & Social Action: Perfecting Posture

During President Obama's farewell speech last night, he talked about each of us needing to look inside ourselves. To be willing to acknowledge our own internal racism, misogyny and other biases. To be willing to walk in the “other” persons shoes. This is something that I have been deeply contemplating throughout the past year.

I went on a one week personal retreat at the end of 2016. With plans to spend all of my time practicing without my normal coping mechanisms (phone, computer, books, music) I arrived with only a couple of spiritual texts. My teacher Victoria Austin had recommended that I simply sit and be during the retreat. To follow the old Zen advice of “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” Excellent advice which I was able to settle into eventually....

But, the first couple of days, I was desperate to turn my mind to something other than myself and found a pile of old newsletters from an organization called the Buddhist Peace Fellowship from the 1990s. The question that these brave practioners were asking themselves was, “how to we merge contemplative practices with social action?” They looked (and are still looking!) at issues of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation but this exploration always began with themselves.

Social action is locating an edge on which I can work, which nudges me out of my particular slot and puts me into a closer connection with the suffering of the world.” -Maylie Scott

One of the ideas that came out through all of the articles I read was deeply looking at your own internal biases. You may think of yourself and being progressive, compassionate and accomodating but when you really look, you may be surprised to see that underneath, hidden the recesses that you still harbor discriminative attitudes.

One of the things I have been considering through the past year is that I may be called upon to use my “white privilege” to stand up for others in the near future. However, when I consider myself “white” that means that I still believe there is a “black” and that we are separate. When I consider myself “privileged” meaning I have money, power, status in life, that means that I see others without financial resources, power or opportunity as other. When I consider myself a normative heterosexual, that means that I still consider those with different sexual orientations to be other. When I consider myself a “woman” that means that I still consider myself separate from men and may even identify myself still as being oppressed and denied equal opportunity.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there are only three sutras on asana, the practice of yoga that my practice is mostly focused on, through the genius of Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar's teachings.

II. 46 Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit

II. 47 Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached

II. 48 From then on, the sadhaka (spiritual aspirant) is undisturbed by dualities

“When body, mind and soul unite in a perfect posture, the sadhaka is in a state of beatitude. In that exalted position, the mind, which is at the root of dualistic perception, loses its identity and ceases to disturb him. Unity is achieved between body and mind and mind and soul. There is no longer joy or sorrow, heat or cold, honor or dishonor, pain or pleasure. This is perfection in action and freedome in consciousness.” -B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

When our posture is perfected, then our perception of the world changes. Then, there is no “other”.

How then do we perfect our posture, our approach, our attitude, our behavior?

“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.

Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.

Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.

'He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me'

- those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.

'He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me'

-those who do not dwell on such thoughts will surely become free from hatred.

For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can.

This is an unalterable law.” -The Buddha, Dhammapada

Our body shapes our mind; our mind shapes our life. We can alter our life, our mind, our trajectory by perfecting the posture we take. I won't pretend to understand fully what this means, to perfect posture, but I will continue to hold the question, to contemplate and to be in the world, with faith, energy, mindfulness, absorption and wisdom.

My teacher Manouso just turned 65 this week. One of the stories he told was of his Guru, B.K.S. Iyengar. He said, he had a private conversation with Iyengar about his mortality before he died and that Iyengar said he had absolutely no reservations about dying because, "he had given much more to the world then he had taken." Manouso said, that this is his intention for the rest of his life; to leave knowing that he has given everything he has to the world. I too would like to make this intention for 2017 and beyond....

 

 

 

 

Get Your Own Back in Backbends: Part 3 Ustrasana (Camel)

"The whole spine is stretched back and is toned. This pose can be tried conveniently by the elderly and even by persons with spinal injury." -Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar

GROUND YOUR ANKLES: The foundation of this pose can be found in the press of the top ankles into the floor. For most of us the weight moves onto the knees in this pose. Instead, squeeze your outer ankles in (I could be doing a better job of this in the photo!) and press the tops of your ankles down, extending your toes back along the floor. If you have trouble getting your ankles down, use the fold of a blanket so you have something to push into. What is the effect on your hips and pelvis?

RELEASE YOUR GROINS: Having established your foundation in the ankles and legs, keep your lower back long and enable an extension of your upper body start by releasing the inner groins of the legs. I am self-adjusting the pose by using my fingers to spread my inner groins apart. Practicing going back this way a couple of times. Is one groin gripping more than the other? What is the effect on your lower back, knee and even on your neck and shoulder?

ENGAGE YOUR SHOULDER BLADES: One of my favorite ways to practice and teach this action of the shoulder blades in Ustrasana is using a chair. Kneel in front of the chair and "back it up" so that your buttocks or thighs touch the front edge of the chair (depending on your height). Your shins will now be underneath the chair seat. Practice the actions above with your hands now on your hips. Then, arch your chest up towards the ceiling and place your hands on the back of the chair seat, palms down. Pull the chair towards you with your hands to bring your shoulder blades into your ribs. Bend your elbows slightly and pull your elbows apart to create space between your upper shoulder blades that will allow your neck to extend back. Finally, hug your bottom, outer shoulder blades in towards the spine to create a doming lift in your upper chest. Now try this same action with your hands on your feet or if you cannot reach, a bolster over the ankles or two blocks on the outside of your ankles.

ASCEND UP: "The great rooted tree by the flowing river." If you look at a statue of the Sage Patanjali, the lower half of his body is a snake with three coils and the upper part of his body is human. The three coils of snake are think and solid and stable as his human form rises up. Can you embody these virtues in Ustrasana (camel). The hips and legs representing the "great rooted tree" while the spine and upper body "flows like a river". To uplift your heart, squeeze the vertebrate on either side of your spine right behind your spiritual heart and lift straight up towards the ceiling while extending the front of your throat and keeping the nape of your neck moving away from your ears. 

Now, what other poses are these actions preparing you for? 


Get Your Own Back in Backbends! Part 2: Dhanurasana (Bow)

"Body is the bow, asana is the arrow, and the soul is the target.” - B.K.S. Iyengar

RELEASE YOUR GROINS: To keep the lower back long and enable an extension of your upper body start by releasing the inner groins of the legs. Start as you did for Bhujangasana (cobra), laying face down on your abdomen. Press up onto your left forearm to lift your chest. Keep your left leg straight and bend your right leg grabbing your ankle on the outside with your right hand. Keep you thigh on the floor and your knee in line with your hip. Extend your inner groin to the knee along the floor as you move the sit bones down towards the floor. Keep the left leg in Bhujangasana press your thigh to ankle into the floor grounding your pelvis down. Repeat on the other side.

ENGAGE YOUR SHOULDER BLADES: Now bend your legs and grab your ankles with both hands. Keep your groins extended along the floor to the knee and your knees in line with your hips. Move your pubic bone to the navel to tilt your pelvis down into the floor. Pull with your arms as you press your ankles straight back to raise your front ribs off the floor. Bend your elbows slightly and turn your biceps from inside out (externally rotate) to squeeze your bottom, outer shoulder blades in towards your spine. Keep the groins of your shoulders (upper trapezius) releasing away from your ears.

ASCEND UP: To lift your thighs up higher, spread your upper back thighs from inside out by moving the sit bones away from your tailbone. Ground your sitbones down as you raise your thighs up higher, extending from your inner heels and balls of the big toes. You should feel a strong stretch across the fronts of your thighs but don't lift so high that you lower back “takes it for the team”. Backbends like Dhanurasana should be back strengtheners, not injuring.

VISUALIZE: Your body as a bow, as in bow and arrow. Can you create an even amount of tension and space along your spine. What's your target?

TOMORROW, PART 3: Bringing these actions into Ustrasana (Camel)