Calm to the Core
Ganga white describes asana as a dance of energy. In this master teacher's view, it is not only how far you move into a given asana that matters but also how you engage your subtle, or energy, body. "Every posture has important principles of structure, alignment, and kinesiology. But learning to cultivate internal energy flow is just as important as mastering these mechanical aspects," he says. Energy is always moving through the body, and White believes that when you bring your awareness to it, you enhance the flow.
When energy is activated this way, it articulates the muscles and bones, thereby helping you refine your alignment in a pose. (The opposite works, too: When you refine your alignment, you enhance the energy flow in a pose.) Working like this, White says, deepens your practice and expands awareness beyond external forms. It also quiets the mind, calms the nerves, and subdues the tendency to want to improve, change, or fix your poses.
To get in touch with your subtle body, White recommends that you incorporate two "powers of mind"—concentration and attention. Concentration moves awareness to specific body parts, while attention involves spreading awareness to all parts of the body simultaneously. "By strengthening and integrating these powers of mind," he says, "you can strengthen respiratory and circulatory energy flows and make them more dynamic. And you can increase energy currents through the nerves, connective tissues, and muscles to increase sensation, activation, and healing." He adds, "You can experience a sense of mental well-being as you become more aware of prana flowing throughout the body."
Dandasana (Staff Pose), or Seated Stick Pose, is truly a Mahasana (Great Pose) for cultivating awareness of flowing energies. It appears passive, but Dandasana involves a dynamic, internal energy dance that benefits yoga practitioners of all levels. Even its simplest version activates every energy line required for the posture's most challenging expression. In Dandasana, energy flows up and down along the entire circumference (sides, front, and back) of the spine between your point of contact with the earth and the skyward extension of your head. At the same time, energy extends evenly from the inner and outer thighs to both edges of the feet, through the backs of your legs into the floor, and along the tops of the legs into the ankles.
Once you are comfortable with your breath and alignment, you can begin to integrate concentration and attention—which is not as easy as it may sound. In his book Yoga Beyond Belief, White writes: "Concentration by its very nature has to move from point to point. Students often find that as they concentrate on one point, they lose another." Focusing on your abdomen in Seated Stick Pose, for instance, may cause you to neglect the edges of your feet, and concentrating on the crown of the head may draw attention away from lengthening the arms.
While you are concentrating on the different components of your pose, you must also keep your attention on the whole. Attention to the whole does not negate the need for focused concentration. And, as White is quick to note, too much focus on "attention" by itself becomes a kind of concentration. However, when you are able to balance concentration and attention in Seated Stick Pose, you will enhance your awareness of the energy flows while keeping the body stable, firm, and light. Your mind will become quiet.Once you integrate concentration and attention to activate energy lines in Seated Stick Pose, you can deepen your experience by bringing awareness to the bandhas, which are known as "seals" or "locks." Simultaneously engaging Mula Bandha (Root Lock), Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), and Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock) creates Maha Bandha (Great Lock).
Here in the energized stillness of Maha Bandha, the asana will merge with pranayama (breathwork), and you will cultivate an awareness that brings the more dynamic versions of Dandasana within reach. By dancing with your energy, you won't need to force yourself into Ubhaya Padangusthasana (Balancing Stick Pose) or Utpluti Dandasana (Floating Stick Pose). Eventually, when the time is right, you will rise into them naturally.
1. Dandasana (Staff or Seated Stick Pose)
Once you become comfortable and energized holding Seated Stick Pose, return to it between each subsequent pose to absorb the energy of the variation. Initially, 5 or 6 breaths in the pose may be enough to reveal its deceptive energetic power; eventually you may learn to enjoy longer holds of up to 10 or 15 breaths.
To come into the pose, sit with your legs extended and your spine long. Press your hands into the ground next to your hips without lifting your sitting bones off the floor. Bend your elbows or come to your fingertips to adjust for the proportions of your arms and torso. Drop your chin so that it is about level with the ground. Notice the different lines of energy in this simple shape. Energy runs from the shoulders down the arms and into the earth, it rises from the pelvic floor all the way up the front of the spine, and it extends along both sides of each leg.
With flexed ankles, spread and create space between your toes. Observe how these movements in the feet activate more nerve channels through the legs. Notice a flowing sensation awakening in the arches of the feet and through the joints of every toe. Create energetic connections with the floor through the backs of your thighs and calves to increase the extension of the legs; feel your heels rise. Maintain these activations as you generate lifting energy in the spine and through the crown of the head.
Keep lifting the spine and chest, dropping the chin, lengthening the arms, and firming the abdomen. Activate energy evenly through the arches and outer edges of each foot, as though pressing against a wall, to ensure that energy flows evenly through both legs and the entire body.
Observe the interplays throughout your body. Notice how engaging your abdominal muscles and lengthening the muscles along the spine create compatible countermovements in the legs. Notice how lifting the chest upward balances the downward countermovements of the tailbone and sitting bones.
Spend a few breaths awakening each bandha to bring strength and lightness to your pose: As you inhale and exhale for a few breaths, energetically connect your sitting bones to each other and to the mat, which will naturally encourage the pelvic floor to lift into Mula Bandha. Release it, and then firm the lowest part of your belly toward the spine gently with each exhalation and feel Uddiyana Bandha engage. Release that, and then feel the next inhalation lift the breastbone and elongate the spine through the back of the neck as your chin draws toward the breastbone into Jalandhara Bandha. After you've focused energy in each bandha for a few breaths, do them again individually in the same order for one breath each. Then do Maha Bandha by doing them all at the same time. If you are familiar with retaining the breath, you can do that, too. Simply sitting with Maha Bandha in Dandasana enhances your ability to become powerfully absorbed in balancing the rising and falling energies of your breath and the movement of energy in the body against the earth's gravitational pull. Notice the calm quality of your mind.
2. Parivrtta Dandasana (Revolved Staff Pose or Twisting Seated Stick Pose)
Twisting Seated Stick Pose opens the outer hips, preparing them for the later poses. To tap into the subtle body, bring your attention to the energy flows of the inner and outer lines of the legs while you concentrate on turning the spine.
To transition from Seated Stick Pose to the twisting version, raise your arms straight overhead. When you bring your arms up, you'll notice another challenge—your spine no longer has support from the hands contacting the floor. To balance this, lengthen the spine with a firm countermovement through your base to increase your physical and energetic connection with the earth. With your arms overhead, bring your palms to face each other and your arms alongside the ears in alignment with the shoulders to create more lifting energy. Create oppositional energy lines to stabilize the shoulders: With your neck relaxed, send energy from your sitting bones to your fingertips and from your fingertips back down to the earth. Lift your floating ribs away from the pelvic girdle with an inhalation to prepare space for the spine to rotate.
Keep extending energy throughout the body while keeping the chin relaxed. Begin the twist with an exhalation. As you turn through the waist, extend the legs and pull the feet and toes back. Lift the chest to create space between the lumbar vertebrae. Bring your right hand to the ground behind the right hip, pointing fingers toward the right. Reach your left hand across your legs to the outside of the right thigh. If you have short arms and are not able to get your palms to the ground, press through the fingertips instead.
Observe how the energy that flows through your spine and legs increases your ability to twist. But be sure to concentrate not only on turning or stretching along the outer portions of the body—bring attention to your breath, too. As you inhale, engage the bandhas to support the spinal extension; as you exhale, allow rotation to come from the core of the body and from a sense of relaxation in the spine.
After four or five breaths in the twist, transition to the other side by extending and pressing through the feet and legs as you inhale and reach the arms back up overhead. Then bring your hands alongside your hips in Seated Stick Pose. Stay for several cycles of breath, rebalancing your energy. Observe and absorb the effects of the twist throughout your entire body. Notice any improvements in the quality of the energy flow. Sense your spinal disks expanding and drawing sustenance from surrounding tissue. Then lift your arms up with an inhalation and exhale as you twist to the other side.
3. Purvottanasana (Upward Plank or Reverse Stick Pose)
In Reverse Stick Pose, make your abdomen a point of concentration in the field of the energy lines you create. Start in Dandasana and activate the energy lines in the spine and legs. Reach down through your arms and lift your chest as you slide the hands back a few inches behind the hips with fingers pointing forward.
As you lift your hips up toward the ceiling, move energy up through the spine and the crown of the head and down through your legs and feet toward the floor. Even if the soles of your feet cannot actually contact your mat in their entirety, expand energetically through the arches, metatarsals, and toes as though they could. It isn't contact with the floor that matters here, but rather it's the energy flow.
As you concentrate on the energy flowing from your toes to the top of your head, maintain your awareness of the interactions that integrate the front and back of your body. Broaden the sacral area and tuck the tailbone toward the heels to create a supportive feeling from the back side of the body. At the same time, open and expand across the breastbone and collarbones. Watch how energy from underneath the body interplays with the head-to-toe energy line of the pose.
If you do reach your head back, try not to cause tension in the neck. White points out that flexible people often lead with the head and overextend the neck. This tendency can irritate or even damage the cervical spine. Keep the head in line with the spine and use the crown as a concentration point for extending energy. Doing just a few breaths in this pose requires a lot of energy: Hold your breath only as long as you can maintain your attention. When you leave Reverse Stick Pose, stay physically and mentally engaged and do not just drop your buttocks to the floor. Think of your departure from the raised position as an energetic return to Seated Stick Pose. Become aware of a continuum of movements and countermovements in the muscles and the breath as you transition into and out of poses.
Repeat Reverse Stick a few times, letting your attention become absorbed by balancing firmness and lightness. Then absorb your experience by sitting in Dandasana for several breaths.
4. Ubhaya Padangusthasana (Both Feet Big Toe Pose or Balancing Stick Pose)
Balancing Stick Pose requires you to create mutually supportive lines of energy between the legs and the spine. Lifting into this more challenging version of Dandasana will also increase your awareness of the interactions between the body's energy and the earth's gravitational pull, and will thus require even more concentration and attention.
Begin in Dandasana. Imagine your core as a point of concentration and allow the energy to flow from it to every point of your body. At the same time, bring greater attention to your contact with the earth, the lifting power of your breath, and integrated activation of the bandhas. Maintain extending energy through the legs even as you bend the knees to take the edges of your feet with your hands. Then keep energy moving evenly from your center through the spine and legs as you inhale to lift the breastbone higher while rocking back into balance on the sitting bones.
Notice what happens if the lines of energy in the legs and spine separate from each other—the legs will move sooner or with more energy than the spine (or vice versa), and you'll lose contact with your core. To lift the legs, you must extend evenly out through the soles of your feet and up through the crown of the head—at the same time and to the same degree! Continuously balance the energy flowing from your core through the spine and down the legs as you stay in the pose for several deep breaths. Bring awareness to your breath to fuel your energy lines and to allow the bandhas to engage. Observe your body feeling lighter and more stable as you integrate Maha Bandha. Firm your energetic connection with the earth through each exhalation. Rejuvenate the energy flows from your center all the way out to your fingers, toes, and crown of the head with each inhalation. Focus your eyes on your spreading toes with a drishti (gaze) that integrates the energetic qualities of concentration and attention.
After four or five breaths, return to Dandasana to integrate your experience in the pose and to prepare for levitating into Floating Stick Pose.
5. Utpluti Dandasana (Floating Stick Pose)
Floating Stick Pose is an energy dance with gravity. When you integrate your experience of the Dandasana variations and learn this dance, you learn more about yourself and about the earth as your partner. Where Seated Stick Pose seems deceptively inactive from an external view, Floating Stick Pose may appear more difficult than it actually is. To prepare, build up to long holds of Seated Stick Pose over time. Deepen your concentration and attention as you engage the breath, your alignment, and the lines of energy in your body. Finally, when you attempt Floating Stick Pose, practice lifting and lowering yourself during a single cycle of breath to gradually develop strength and awareness before you attempt to do longer holds while lifted.
Floating Stick Pose requires core and arm strength, but the real key to floating above the earth involves unlocking energy flows through the feet, legs, and spine. Neither sheer arm strength nor pulling up through abdominal muscles will bring you into an energetic dance with the earth that allows you to float lightly against its gravitational pull. Instead, you will levitate into Floating Stick Pose by energizing your body and coordinating your breath with your bandhas.
From Dandasana, press your arms down into the earth. Draw your sitting bones together and exhale as you engage Mula Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha, and Jalandhara Bandha. Keep both legs active and engaged.
At first you may feel only your skeletal structure lifting slightly, though no part of your flesh actually leaves the floor. Do not rush to push through this experience; allow it to unfold over several practice sessions. Keep lengthening your arms and increasing the space between your floating ribs and pelvis.
Eventually the sitting bones may rise and begin to swing back in balance behind the wrists without observable exertion on your part. Your legs may stay on the floor and your knees may bend as your hips float up, but keep your feet activated. Resist the urge to lift the legs off the floor with muscular action. Keep your attention on overall lightness, stability, and balance while your calves or heels still touch the ground. Send energy from your core up through the spine and out through the inner and outer legs.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, sense an energetic connection with the earth through the sitting bones, the calves, and the thighs even as they begin to levitate. With practice, your heels will eventually pull back and up away from the floor by the swinging momentum of your hips. When this happens, reach the arms down and breathe into the breastbone to encourage it to lift.
Remember that gasping or tightening the breath will interrupt the energy flow and fragment your concentration and attention. Allow uninterrupted breath to bring your awareness to points of concentration along the whole circumference of the spine, legs, and arms. Let attention expand to the breath and the bandhas while your energy body dances through balance with the earth.
By practicing this sequence, you can begin to follow your internal awareness to guide your practice instead of relying only on external feedback. As White says, "Seated Stick Pose provides an opportunity to integrate an expanding awareness of internal energies that inspires natural, intelligent action."
He illustrates this lesson by comparing it to a spring-fed stream flowing through a deep canyon. Winding around boulders in tumbling cascades, the stream carries a stick steadily down; yet, within quiet pools, energies spiral in powerful eddies, spinning the floating stick in circles as it dances upstream once more.