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In 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda gave a speech that is said to be the first official introduction of yoga to the United States. In the early 1900s, Perry Baker from Iowa changed his name to Pierre Bernard and became known as “the Great Oom”—a yoga teacher to the wives of New York state’s financial tycoons. By the 1960s, if you wanted to make it as a movie star in California, then, “Dahling, you absolutely must” study yoga with Indra Devi.
For nearly 120 years, yoga has been a part of American life. During that time, yoga has changed Americans, and Americans have made their mark on the practice. In some cases, asana practice has become more athletic. Vinyasa flows are faster, new poses are being explored, and classes include more variety. Instead of wearing a dhoti, a traditional skirt-like garment worn by Indian men, a typical Western yoga student might sport spandex shorts and a tight tank top. Yet when we’re sitting cross-legged with our eyes closed, or moving with our breath, we experience the same peace as the yogis of old. And though yoga may evolve in its outer form, the most important transformation in yoga will always be the change that happens within.
When it comes to asana practice, the more it evolves, the more important it is to learn the essential principles of alignment taught by some of yoga’s great teachers, such as B.K.S. Iyengar. In fact, yoga teachers have had to become vigilant in enforcing alignment in their classes to provide a corrective balance to the big, juicy fun yoga we love to do so much!
Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana—One-Legged Downward-Facing Dog Pose—is a perfect example of American inventiveness when it comes to yoga. While remaining grounded in the fundamental alignment of Downward Dog, this posture has grown a little extension! The benefits of Downward Dog—it strengthens the arms and legs, creates space in the torso for better organ function, and rests the brain—are all present, but with one leg up in the air, One-Legged Downward Dog offers the further benefits and fun challenges that come from working with an asymmetrical balance.
The alignment instructions for Downward Dog also apply to this uneven variation: Even though you are standing on two hands and one leg, the shoulders and pelvis must remain square. This is the key to finding stability when you begin to lift one leg. When they’re first trying One-Legged Downward Dog, people typically twist their hips and collapse through their torso, and sometimes may even lose their balance. But if you can apply the principles of alignment with a bit of mindfulness in action, you’ll be standing on “three legs” in no time.
- Quiets the mind
- Strengthens the arms
- Stretches the hamstrings and hip flexors
- Develops confidence in balance
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- High blood pressure
Active Arms and Legs
Begin exploring these principles by sitting on the floor in Dandasana (Staff Pose), with your feet pressing against a wall. Lift up your arms alongside your ears. Try to stay here for several breaths and take inventory, starting from the feet up.
Notice whether your knees start to bend when you press your feet into the wall. Observe the action of your pelvis. Is it tucking? Observe whether your spine is extended, or rounding. Do your back muscles feel comfortable? See if you can straighten your arms beside your ears without your neck disappearing. And finally, observe your breath. Can you lengthen your inhalation and exhalation?
OK, let your arms drop down and relax. Whew! I’m going to take a guess that it was harder than you expected. Let’s reorganize this version of Dandasana to make it more comfortable and beneficial, and to go through the actions that you’ll need to use later on in Downward Dog.
First, place a folded blanket or cushion under your sitting bones, which will give your pelvis a slight tilt, allowing the spine to lengthen with less muscular effort.
Next, mindfully work your legs. Firmly press your palms down on your quadriceps muscles, inviting your femurs to move earthward toward your hamstrings. Then, actively engage your quadriceps as if they were moving up your leg bone toward your hips. At the same time, extend energy out through your feet.
Now continue doing these actions without your hands on your legs. Keep your legs strong and lift up your arms next to your ears. This action of the arms and legs will keep you from collapsing your chest or rounding your lower back. If you feel constricted in your neck or chest, it’s OK to keep your arms open in a V shape, allowing your shoulders to stay relaxed. But don’t forget to keep working your legs at the same time. This kind of multitasking is what makes us yogis so smart! Try to stay here for five deep breaths.
Now it’s time to do a practice run of One-Legged Downward Dog, but lying on your back instead of standing on “all threes.” This will let you explore the alignment without the effort of keeping all your muscles and bones in the right place.
Keeping your seat where it is, turn around so your back is to the wall, and lie down on your back. You should be an arm’s length from the wall. Lift your left leg to the ceiling. Ask a friend, if one is nearby, to put a block on that foot (see illustration on page 46). If you’re on your own, then loop a yoga strap around your top foot. With your left leg perpendicular to the floor, press your left hand against your left thigh. Press your right palm down on your right thigh. Feel the action of the thighbones moving toward the hamstrings. Reach long through both legs all the way out through your heels. Can you feel how this helps keep the sides of your waist long and your pelvis level?
Finally, keeping your legs where they are, extend your arms overhead, flex your wrists, and press your palms into the wall. The action of pressing against the wall gives you a point of reference for keeping your pelvis and shoulders square, and helps you remember to lengthen the spine. Take several breaths here and repeat on the other side.
Does anything feel familiar? This variation is the same as doing One-Legged Downward Dog, only in a different relationship with space and gravity. Everything you’ve discovered about your legs, pelvis, spine, neck, and arms—and all the adjustments you did to make them work together—will give you information about your One-Legged Dog. Making these connections for yourself will help you in many other poses as well. This is how you evolve your personal practice.
Let’s try it now. Come into Downward Dog Pose. Reach your sitting bones up, lifting your pelvis away from your ribs. If you can’t figure out how to do that, remember what it felt like to activate your arms and legs in Dandasana. Press down with your hands and reach out through your heels, just as you did lying on your back. Bend your knees slightly and engage your quadriceps muscles to direct your thighbones up and back as you slowly straighten your knees. As you do this, feel the pelvis reach up and the side waist lengthen.
If you are finding it difficult to feel the engagement of the quadriceps, it might mean your hands and feet are too close together. Try moving them farther apart. It’s not important to have your feet flat on the floor. But it is very important to have length, space, and breath in the torso, so step back enough to allow your sitting bones to reach up to the sky.
Another whew! Come down and rest in Child’s Pose for a moment. Now come back into Downward Dog and observe this new Dog. What is different? What have you learned? Asking these kinds of questions helps you grow as a yogi. From here, lift your right hand off the floor—you may be surprised that you really can do this! With your palm, press up and back at the top of your right quadriceps, a similar action to the one you did in Dandasana. Replace your hand on the floor and do the other side.
Now, slowly begin to lift your right leg up off the floor. Make that lifting action begin from the very place you just touched—the top of your quadriceps muscle. If you kick up from your foot, you might end up losing the alignment that you worked so hard to create.
In the “Don’t” illustration (see page 45), you can see that while the model’s leg is pretty high, his hips are not aligned anymore. Try to maintain your precisely organized Downward Dog Pose as you lift your thigh and extend long through the heel. Take your leg only as high as you can without tilting the pelvis sideways, twisting the torso, or losing length in the spine. Keep your pelvis and shoulders square, and your weight evenly dispersed through the shoulders and arms, with your sitting bones reaching away from the rib cage, as you did earlier in Downward Dog. Keep the arms and legs active and your breathing stable and smooth. Put your foot back on the floor and rest in Child’s Pose. Then do the other side with the same level of intelligence and directness.
Grow Your Practice
Even as a beginning yogi, you may have noticed that some of the poses you first found difficult, or even thought were impossible, are now easy for you. With newfound mindfulness, you experience physical, mental, and emotional openings in places you didn’t know existed.
Although you practice some of the same poses every day, the way to keep growing in your yoga is to not let your practice become rote. One way to do that is to understand how the alignment principles of asana work. Start with one pose you understand and then begin to apply what you know to other poses, one by one.
This kind of process is a true yogic exploration. Each time you try something new, the starting point will always be the same alignment principles. Within those guidelines, check in with what is happening today. Where can you go? Where are you stuck? How can you explore your experience of the pose and develop your strength, stamina, stability, and freedom? This is how the evolution of yoga in America happens, with each one of us evolving our own personal practice. The ongoing conversation between the clarity and consistency of alignment principles and the freshness of each moment is how your yoga practice will progress and stay alive for you throughout your life.
Cyndi Lee is an author, artist, and yoga teacher, and the founder of OM Yoga Center.