Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
If I were to ask you to bring forward the very best part of yourself right now, how would you do it? I am not asking you for a psychological insight about yourself. I am not looking for a thought, or even an intention. I mean: What does your best self feel like, as a sensation? How tangible is that sensation? How do you access it?
Your yoga practice offers a methodology for reaching deeper into the subtle nature of your experience and your sensation. Lift your chest and feel how awareness flows more gracefully through your limbs. It lightens the quality of sensation within you while distributing subtle awareness throughout your body. This simple action can be found in almost every one of your poses, and it fundamentally changes the way you interact with the space in and around you.
Realizing the transformative power of a lifted chest requires you to listen to your experience beyond the muscular actions. It requires sensing and connecting to the subtle parts of who and what you are.
I am completely paralyzed from the chest down. On a purely physical level, I have no sensation below my chest. Instead, I experience a resounding silence. But when I go deeper into that silence, into the parts of me that I cannot directly feel or control, I discover that my inward silence is itself a sensation. It is not as tangible as flexing a muscle. But the sensation inherent in the silence within me is affected and refined by the principles of the yoga asanas. Because I have opened to this level of myself, when I lift my chest, I can feel my inner body move through my paralyzed limbs. As I experience this subtle and transcendent level of sensation, the world becomes a bigger and more nourishing place.
Your situation is similar. The heart of yoga does not reside solely in the strength of your muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Nor does the best version of your self, which waits for you within the silence of your mind-body relationship. Asana is a powerful vehicle of realization because it teaches you how to move this truth into action. It combines the sensation of what you can feel and can control with the inner awareness of what you cannot tangibly feel and cannot control. Asanas become more graceful and nourishing through the dynamic integration of these two basic sensations. When this happens, more of you is realized and your true self steps forward.
Think of it this way: What you feel and experience of yourself in this present moment is only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of you resides below the surface, out of sight and immeasurable. You will never know the precise contours of what lies beneath from purely tangible evidence. But you are vast, and you can open to this vastness as a sensation. Stay patient and listen to the subtle sensations of the inner body. They are truly transcendent. When you connect at this level, wonderful things begin to happen, and not just in your asana practice. You will open to and believe in the vastness of who and what you are.
Broaden Your Horizons
Lifting the chest is an action you’re instructed to do in many poses. Feel the difference this simple action can make when you practice it with mind-body awareness. It can create a sense of uplift and expansion, the effects of which can be felt far beyond the postures.
Sit in a Chair with your feet on the floor. Feel your sitting bones. Without applying any pressure, feel the weight of your inner heels on the floor.
Lift Your Chest on an inhalation and gently move your awareness vertically up your spine. Take one full breath.
Broaden Across the Front and Back Ribs as you take another deep breath, scanning your awareness up through your spine again. Reconnect to your sitting bones. Broaden across the bottom of your heels and notice your inner thighs. Take one full breath.
Inhale and Repeat, making sure that you include the sense of both vertical and horizontal extension. As you do, notice how you feel deeper, lighter, more expansive. Release and sit quietly, taking several full breaths.
Matthew Sanford is a yoga teacher and the founder of the nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, and he has been a paraplegic for the past 32 years. He is the author of the award-winning book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.