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The great yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar once said, “I’ve spent the last 75 years of my life exploring what happens to my sternum when I press my big toe down.” There is so much in this statement that it has fed my yoga practice for years. He was telling us that all of our actions have results, and as yogis, our practice is to pay attention to this cause-and-effect relationship. When the action and the result come together in a harmonious way, we have an experience of yoga—or what Mr. Iyengar called integration.
Asana is the perfect vehicle for embodying this philosophy. When I sequence a series of poses or the full arc of a class, I think about how much our actions matter. I also aim to integrate the practice of vinyasa, defined as “to place in a special way,” with the practice of mindfulness—defined as “a conscious placing of the mind.” Being aware of how you place your body, and mind, on sensations that arise and dissolve will help you evolve your practice from exercise to experience; from separation to integration.
Infusing this perspective into asana practice can happen in the granular actions that make up the poses. In this sequence, we are exploring the difference between position and action by looking at how and where we initiate small essential actions and how they compose basic, as well as more complex, poses. Once you understand the body mechanics, you can begin to recognize that these actions and relationships are everywhere in asana. Instead of focusing on positions, we are focusing on how these positions come together through the application of specific repetitive actions throughout a class.
For example, how you organize your legs in the familiar movements of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) will inform how your legs work in more complicated poses. For example, when a Downward-Facing Dog Split (Adho Mukha Svanasana, variation) is done with special care—when you initiate this action by lifting from the top of the thigh—it can be the seed for a future Handstand (Addho Mukha Vrksasana). If you don’t think about the results of our actions, you might try to do a Handstand by flinging your legs up in the air. This kind of working from momentum generally leads to frustration and drama and rarely to success. Working with specificity and understanding cause and effect also helps us have agency in practice and life, and reduces our human tendencies to grasp and react.
To avoid those tendencies, I like to establish landmarks throughout class, from beginning to end. In this sequence, I do this by exploring the dynamic movement pairings found in asana practice: inhalation and exhalation, pressing down to go up, tucking and tilting, reaching forward and back, internal and external rotation of the arms and legs. All of these relationships can be investigated within the movement of a vinyasa class. No need to stop the flow and belabor the work. We make tactile self-adjustments that create imprints that are referenced throughout the arc of the class, which becomes a conversation between mind and body. This approach goes all the way through the class until the very end, when finally we simply lie down, let go, and trust the practice.
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