Go With Your Gut
Haragei is a Japanese word that, when simply defined, means "belly art." It describes a quality of presence in which the intelligence of the belly is fully integrated into any activity, from the subtle protocols of a traditional tea ceremony to the unwavering intention of an archer drawing her bow or the elegant stroke of a calligrapher's brush. In the book Hara: The Vital Center of Man, philosopher and Zen practitioner Karlfried Dürckheim says that when haragei is cultivated, "an all-around transformation of all one's faculties takes place, unhindered by the limitations of the five senses and the intellect. One perceives reality more sensitively, is able to take in perceptions in a different way, assimilates them and therefore reacts differently and, finally radiates something different...The three fundamental reactions to life and the world—perception, assimilation, and response—change in the direction of an expansion, deepening, and intensifying of the whole personality." I find the qualities of haragei readily accessible in Mayurasana, the pose of the peacock, because it requires deep belly work. While this type of work is not exactly comfortable, it can be transformative.
Like most other arm balances, Mayurasana appears to require exceptional strength. What is actually needed, though, is patient, progressive work to develop a more intimate relationship with gravity. To begin doing this, you'll need to create a sturdy foundation for the pose using your hands, your forearms, and—you guessed it—your belly. Think of the hands as your feet and the forearms as your legs. Once you set up a solid base, you'll need to press your elbows deep into your belly, which might initially make you flinch and tighten your gut. It will feel counterintuitive to soften your belly around your elbows and dig your elbows into that flesh, but that's exactly what you'll need to do in order to complete the pose. Once you're able to do this, you'll find a strong set of deep abdominal muscles underneath the often-overused rectus abdominus (aka your washboard abs); these will keep you stable.
To finish the framework of Mayurasana, you'll also need open shoulders and wrists. The sequence that follows will help you develop them. Use it to cultivate three qualities in the physical body—a soft belly, open shoulders, and strong, flexible wrists. Go only as far as you can in each pose, staying present with your discomfort and deepening your relationship to resistance. These poses can be intense, but change will unfold if you consistently touch your discomfort as softly as you can. This approach will help you overcome difficulties and give you confidence to approach the final pose.
1. Balasana, variation
This variation of Child's Pose is a useful preparation for Mayurasana because it encourages you to redirect your breath and release unconscious holding in the belly. Placing the mat into the fold of your waist will compress the front of your floating ribs and diaphragm, just as the elbows do in the final pose. You'll notice that this squeezing of the abdominal organs is not conducive to the full front-body breathing pattern that most of us have adopted, and it often creates claustrophobia, nausea, or even a fear of dying.
Consider the pose an invitation to breathe, possibly for the first time, somewhere other than the front of your lungs, or in such a way as to avoid distending your belly as you inhale. By realigning the orientation of your breath into the back of the lungs, you'll create more internal space. Next, establish longer cycles of breath by slowing down each inhalation and exhalation. Visualize the breath becoming narrow as you channel it through your body. To lessen the feelings of claustrophobia and shortness of breath, consciously move that narrow breath into the compressed ribs and lungs.
To begin the pose, sit on your heels with your knees and feet together, in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt). Place a rolled-up mat deep into the crease of your waist, then bend forward on an exhalation. Keep your arms straight, your palms flat, and your head in line with your neck. With each cycle of breath, consciously soften your diaphragm and floating ribs as you exhale, and feel the weight of your abdominal organs dropping. If you feel a release in the waist and an invitation to go deeper, walk your hands forward and continue to fold over the mat. Once your head reaches the floor, bring your arms alongside you with the palms turned up. If it's difficult to reach the floor, come up and unroll the mat a little to make it thinner, and try again.
As you begin your next inhalation, imagine breathing into the back of your heart, and feel the breath lifting your thoracic spine (upper back) slightly. You may not get a full breath, but keep the rhythm of your breath long and slow, and the energy of your frontal chest, ribs, and belly quiet. As you exhale, release the weight of your abdominal organs, soften the diaphragm, and surrender the arms, feeling their weight pulling down on the shoulders, collarbones, and thorax.
With practice, you will notice more space in your abdomen as the organs become toned and supple. The pattern of breathing into your back will become familiar, and your spine will elongate freely as your breath works to release the tension in your belly center.
2. Dragonfly Pose
It may not be the most graceful pose, but Dragonfly is a great way to get the shoulder opening you'll need in Mayurasana. It releases the musculature of the upper back, increasing the range of motion in the shoulders. In so doing, it will increase your ability to bring the elbows together in Mayurasana. Broadening across the upper back also helps release the muscles in the area that chronically grip and, ultimately, create rigidity in the thoracic spine. As you gently surrender during this warm-up pose, you'll gradually feel a subtle elongation of your spine.
Another benefit of Dragonfly is that it compresses the chest and restricts the upper portions of the lungs—just as Mayurasana does. This is especially helpful for women, since they have breast tissue to manage, or for men with highly developed pectoral tissue, like weightlifters. As you did in the Balasana variation, realign the orientation of your breath into your back body and draw air into the back of your lungs. At the same time, slow your breath down and draw your narrow breath into the compressed space to bring more tranquility to the nervous system.
To begin, lie on your belly with your legs straight. Bring your arms underneath you and across your chest as though you were giving yourself a hug. Keep your arms on the same line as your shoulders and stack one elbow on top of the other. Walk your fingertips apart as far as you can, palms facing up. Completely "empty" your arms, keep your hands passive, and consciously slow your breath down. With an inhalation, tuck your toes under and lift your hips and belly off the floor. Keep your knees and forehead on the floor. These movements will bring your center of gravity forward over your arms while giving you an efficient stretch. As you stay there, feel the fullness of your breath in the back of your heart. With each exhalation, soften the top of your lungs and feel the weight of your heart and chest sinking onto your arms. Feel your neck lengthening as the upper back releases, and gently slide your forehead forward, generating length in the cervical spine. Stay with this for 3 to 4 cycles of breath, then gently drop back down onto your belly.
3. Mandukasana, variation
Once you have prepared your belly and shoulders for Mayurasana, one last "edge" remains that, in this day and age of keyboard-generated wrist weakness, has become a major obstacle for many. If you have any symptoms of repetitive stress or carpal tunnel syndrome in your wrists, the discomfort you feel in your hands, wrists, and forearms can be excruciating in Mayurasana. If you are in an inflamed state, don't practice this series. But if you are in a recovery stage and you've checked with your health care practitioner, you might try this pose. Approach the discomfort that arises in this Mandukasana variation with patience, knowing that the resistance in the wrists will eventually yield, allowing you to build the strength necessary for Mayurasana.
Come into a tabletop position on your hands and knees and, with your knees hip distance apart, place the tops of your feet on the floor and bring them together so that your big toes touch. Next, externally rotate your hands 180 degrees, bringing your pinkies together, and place your palms flat on the floor. Walk your knees back a few inches, then sit back toward your heels, keeping your arms straight. The heels of your hands will peel off the floor, but go back only as far as you can while keeping your elbows straight and the pads of your fingers flat on the floor. When you reach the limitation of your wrists, stay there for 2 to 3 breaths.
If you want to go farther, slowly bend your arms, this time peeling your fingers off the floor, until your elbows touch the floor. Keep the very tips of your fingers on the floor, even if it's just your fingernails hooking into the mat. Gently soften into the top of the wrists, the bones of the hands, and fingers as you press the wrists forward. On an inhalation, release your hands and roll your wrists over in the opposite direction as if you were trying to touch your fingers onto your forearms.
As a counterpose, come back to your hands and knees and place the back of your right wrist onto the floor, with your fingers pointing toward your feet. Try to keep the weight of your body equal on both arms. Repeat with the back of your left wrist. Once you've trained the wrists and forearms—the areas of the body that make up the foundation of the pose—you'll be ready to take on the final challenge of Mayurasana.
4. Padma Mayurasana, variation
Mayurasana is like a human teeter-totter, and as any kid on a playground knows, a teeter-totter can provide hours of fascination, not to mention the experience of being "en-light-ened." With a stable base and relatively even weight on each end, there is a remarkable lack of effort required to seesaw, or move up and down. It can help to think of Mayurasana and this preparatory pose, Padma Mayurasana, in the same way. Binding the legs in Padmasana (Lotus) brings them closer to the pose's center of gravity (your arms) so that less force is required to lift off the floor.
In this variation, though, you'll keep your head and knees on the floor, so you don't have to worry about balancing. Attempting to balance too quickly in the pose often causes fear to kick in. Then you tighten your gut, which causes your elbows to slide and—guess what?—you lose your balance and feel frustrated. So, take the opportunity here to practice completely relaxing your whole body as you press your elbows into your belly center. Allow the folds of your abdominal flesh to roll over your elbows, and eventually you'll feel your elbows lock into the firmness of the deep layers of your abdomen.
To begin, sit in Padmasana. Roll up onto your knees, placing your hands flat on the floor in front of you. With straight arms, walk your hands forward into Simhasana (Lion Pose), keeping your head upright and your arms directly under your shoulders as the front of your pelvis drops toward the floor. Breathe deeply, feeling the sensation of your breath pouring into the floor of the pelvis. With each exhalation, soften your diaphragm and feel the weight of your internal organs drop. Soften your inner groins, and let your hips sink deeper as your waist lengthens. If you feel any compression in the lower back or sacrum, draw your tailbone down toward the floor, the navel in slightly toward the spine.
When you feel ready, rotate your arms so that your fingers are pointing toward your hips. Then lean forward, bend your elbows, and press your forearms together until your forehead touches the floor. Keep your belly and buttocks soft, and feel the flesh of your abdomen rolling over the elbows. Breathe into the back of your heart, and as you exhale, soften the top of the lungs, feeling your chest and outer shoulders releasing down toward the floor. With each cycle of breath, soften more deeply into the belly and feel your torso completely supported by your arms. Stay here for 3 to 4 cycles of breath, keeping your attention on the softening process of the belly. When you reach this stage of the pose and develop a degree of comfort in it, you are ready for the final liftoff.
Most arm balances require incredible strength in the core, and Mayurasana is no exception. The belly is the key to the pose, but it's the most difficult part to master. To be simultaneously supple yet firm in your abdomen, you'll have to keep softening your belly, staying with the discomfort of digging your elbows into it until you can trust that firmness and stability will come—and they will. But not in the surface layers of tissue or muscle. You'll have to literally move beyond your comfort zone into a space where you simultaneously balance effort and non-effort. Seek the place where you experience a more intimate relationship with firmness, where you overcome fear and can enjoy the exhilaration of flying. Now your belly is fully integrated into the pose—this is haragei.
Come into the Padma Mayurasana variation and slide forward on your forehead slightly so that your center of gravity shifts, creating lightness in the legs and more weight on the bridge of your nose. Feeling this, slowly lift your knees, keeping the belly soft, and extend your thighs away from your hips. Keep your head down until you feel your balance steady. Then slowly lift your head until your body is horizontal to the floor. Stay with Padma Mayurasana as long as you can maintain a smooth, even rhythm in your breathing. Release any gripping in your belly and feel your elbows dive deeper into your gut. Let your outer shoulders release down toward the floor and feel your upper back broadening. When you find a sure steadiness, carefully unhook your legs and extend them back, leaning forward over your hands to counterbalance the weight and extension of your legs. When the legs are fully straight, keep extending through the toes and stay for another 3 to 4 breaths. Then lower your feet to the floor gently and release the pose.
It will take consistent practice before your Mayurasana reaches that perfect balance of gravity and grace, where the effort you expend in the pose comes from integration rather than muscular exertion. But it's worth your perseverance. Ultimately, as you master this pose, you will gain tranquility in the midst of discomfort, allowing you to move beyond your edge and trust that an inner elasticity will support you if you surrender.