There's a reason we refer
to our yoga as "practice": It's an opportunity to practice whatever qualities we want to see more of in our lives. Sometimes we do yoga to cultivate patience, clarity, or bravery. Other times, our list is more tangible: We want a strong upper body, increased energy, or open hips. The reasons we practice inevitably change as we go through career moves, love affairs, pregnancies, and other life transitions.
They also change from day to day. Developing a personal yoga practice allows us to devise a specific program to give ourselves what we really need at any given time. We get on the mat whenever we can, for whatever length of time, in whatever amount of space is available to us. This practical approach is a first step toward integrating yoga into everyday life.
No matter what our situation is, a personal yoga practice can help move us toward an experience of balance. The word balance comes from the Latin word balare, which means "to dance." I teach the flowing style of vinyasa yoga, which incorporates logically sequenced asanas that flow from one into another—a great vehicle for exploring the swaying dance of balance.
Vinyasa yoga places equal emphasis on the stillness of asanas and on the movement that occurs in the transitions between poses. Being attentive, precise, and openhearted
as we roll over our toes from Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) to Downward Dog or pulsate in the soft strength of Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) is a good first step toward practicing being attentive, precise, and openhearted as we move through the richness of life's dramas and the mundane aspects of daily living.
Another defining element of vinyasa practice is the invitation to use the breath
as a home base for our wandering mind. Whenever you recognize that you have
gotten caught up in a thought, simply return your attention to the breath.
You'll find that you like some of the asanas and transitions in this sequence and don't like others. That's fine and natural. Experiencing each asana fully and then moving on with curiosity is an opportunity to practice recognizing our habits and returning to the breath. We move toward balance when we can relax the grip of our habitual thought patterns and connect to our immediate experience exactly as it is.
Throughout this sequence, explore the equilibrium between front and back, your two sides, up and down, heaven and earth. Notice what habits you have when you feel you are losing your balance and if they seem similar to responses you have to other events in your life.
You can follow my suggestions for holding specific poses for a certain number of breaths; hold poses for one breath or breath cycle where this isn't mentioned. Or you can move through the entire vinyasa more quickly, holding each pose for just one breath or breath cycle. For a longer session, add any or all of the practices in "Round Out Your Practice: Balance".
Starting in Mountain Pose, bend the left leg deeply. Wrap the right leg over the left, trying not to let the bottom knee cross over the midline of your body. Bring your left arm in front of your face, wrap the right arm under the left, and bring the palms together. If the wrap of the arms contorts your hands, place the backs of your hands instead of your palms together. Relax your gaze. This is a very wibbly-wobbly pose; there is no other way for it to be. Stay here for 5 to 7 breaths.
2. Virabhadrasana I
(Warrior Pose I)
On an inhalation, unwind from Garudasana, bringing the right foot to the floor about 3 to 4 feet behind you. On an exhalation, backstroke the
arms, ending with the palms together overhead as you bend the left leg to a 90-degree
angle. The big swoosh out of Eagle Pose is a nice contrast to the gathering-together feeling of arriving in Warrior I. Inhale here to reorganize your pose If you need to. It's really fine to tinker, but notice what habits you have. Continue to do them or
not, but let it be a conscious choice.
3. Virabhadrasana II
(Warrior Pose II)
Move from Warrior I to Warrior II on an exhalation by opening the arms out to the sides and gazing over your left fingertips. As you arrive in the pose, feel the expansiveness of its broad, open shape. Feel the balance between your right and left ribs, your lungs, legs, arms, fingers, ears. Think of every pose as a minivinyasa with three parts: arising, abiding, and dissolving. Can you taste each of these elements, even in just one breath?
4. Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana
From Warrior II, inhale as you cartwheel your right arm up and over your head, creating a nice opening in the right ribs. As you exhale, bring your hands to either side of the front foot and float your right leg up to the sky. (If your hands don’t reach the floor easily, place them on blocks.) The proper balance of external and internal rotation in each leg is crucial: Your right leg and hip will externally rotate a bit; that's OK as long as your left knee and toes are pointing straight ahead in parallel rotation. Can you feel how the downward energy of the standing leg creates an upward movement in the top leg? Don't focus on how high your leg goes; instead, work toward directing equal energy into both legs. Stay here for 3 to 8 breaths.
Release the external rotation of your right leg, squaring your hips. Swing the leg straight down and, as it passes by the left leg, bend your knees and have a seat, extending both legs forward on the floor. Bend both knees toward your chest; place your feet and fingertips on the floor. Shift your weight toward the front of your sitting bones. Keep the chest lifted and the lower back long. If this is enough of a challenge, stay here. Otherwise, continue: Lift one foot at a time off the floor. Next, lift your arms until they are parallel to the floor and you are balanced on your sitting bones. Finally, use an exhalation to straighten your legs at a 45-degree angle to the floor. See if you can create evenness in the length and quality of your inhalations and exhalations. Although your abs may be singing loudly, can you maintain awareness throughout your body? Stay here for 3 to 8 breaths.
6. Tolasana Variation
(Scales Pose Variation)
From Boat Pose, exhale as you bend your knees, cross your ankles, and place your hands on the floor beside your hips. Inhale, then exhale as you press your palms down and lift your hips up off the floor. Continue breathing deeply as you strongly activate your abdominals, lifting first your top foot and then your bottom foot. You can try this pose with your hands on blocks to make it easier. Watch your mind as you approach this pose. It's very common to take one look at it and think, "No way." Recognize that as a thought and let it go. This pose might be more possible than you think, because it doesn't depend just on raw strength; pretend you're at the park on a swing and use some momentum to help you get up. Let this be an exploration of how to be strong and fluid at the same time. Lift as high as you can, then lower down. Repeat the pose three times.
7. Chaturanga Dandasana
(Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
Inhale and sit back down. Shift your weight forward onto your hands, then exhale as you jump or step back into Plank Pose. When you shoot your legs back, take your shoulders and sternum forward so you are extending from your center in two directions. This pose may seem to be all about the arms, but finding the activity of the legs will balance that work. Lengthen the tailbone toward the inner heels and firm the quadriceps up toward the hamstrings. Send equal energy into the ball joints of the big and baby toes as well as into the inner and outer heels. Then move into Four-Limbed Staff: Keeping your elbows close to your body, bend your arms and lower down into a push-up position. If this pose is a challenge for you, don't worry about it. Curiosity about your own unfolding is recommended. It simply takes as long as it takes to develop the necessary strength and coordination. Part of cultivating a sense of balance is knowing when to be patient.
8. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
(Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Draw your torso forward on an inhalation and roll over your toes as you bring your hips forward. Straighten your arms and come into a backbend. Maintain a sense of elongation in the legs while pressing down on the tops of the feet and making space between your toes. Remember that gripped toes, squeezed buttocks, and dropped knees can lead to back injury. Relax your buttocks and roll your inner thighs up and back—more legs, less bum. Find the middle place between totally dropping down into your shoulders and pressing the floor away so much that your trapezius muscles harden and you can't draw your shoulder blades down your back. Imagine a hand giving your sternum a nice lift. Keep the back body broad to help create balance throughout the whole body.
9. Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
As you exhale, press into your hands and draw your hips toward the ceiling to come into Downward-Facing Dog. Press firmly into your index fingers. Reach down evenly with the inner and outer heels as you lift the inner and outer ankles. Lift the head up, then tuck your chin into your chest. Finally, let your head dangle naturally and allow the movement of your breath to expand evenly throughout the neck and throat. Stay here for 3 breaths.
(Side Plank Pose)
Roll into this pose by placing the baby-toe side of your left foot on the floor and stacking your right foot directly above it. Spin your belly to the right, extend your right arm straight up toward the ceiling, and turn your head to gaze up at your right thumb. Remember, if you fall down, it's not that far! Keeping in mind that this pose is really like Mountain Pose tipped over on its side, watch how the relationship between the front and back body, the pubic bone and tailbone, shifts as you move from Downward-Facing Dog into Side Plank. Try to establish a line through the heels, hips, heart, and head. Even though your bottom arm might be working so hard that it quivers, the strength required for this pose comes from the whole body working together in harmony. Make sure you're engaging your legs and belly and extending through the top arm. Stay for 3 to 8 breaths, then shift back into Downward-Facing Dog.
11. Ardha Matsyendrasana
(Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
From Downward-Facing Dog, keep your hands on the floor and jump your feet forward—land on your left foot at the same time that you tuck your right knee to the outside of your left foot. Have a seat between your feet to arrive for the twist. Inhale, extending your arms up. As you exhale, twist to the left and let your arms float down to wherever they land. See where your twist happens naturally without using your arms to crank yourself around. Then either wrap your right arm around your left knee or, if you can twist a little more, place your upper arm on the outside of the knee. Make the choice that allows for the most complete breath and most open heart. If your pelvis tucks under and your lower back rounds, sit on a blanket or a block.
Stay here for 5 to 8 breaths.
Release the twist and extend your arms out from your shoulders. Inhale as you shift your weight forward and stand up. (This movement takes coordination of the breath, abdominals, and weight distribution, as well as some oomph from the legs. You may want to practice it a few times.) Then stand in Mountain, with your feet planted firmly on the floor, your arms relaxed at your sides, and your neck long. Look straight ahead. What’s right in front of you? Did you go so far inside that you forgot where you were? Now close your eyes. Can you feel the tiny movements that you make naturally as your body figures out how to ride the movement of the earth? Can you feel how you are connected to fields of wheat, redwood trees, and all the many beings that are swaying within balance right now? Move into Eagle Pose with the left leg on top and repeat the entire sequence on the other side.
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM Yoga Center in Manhattan and East Hampton, New York. She is the author and artist of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice; OM at Home: A Yoga Journal; the OM Yoga in a Box series; the book Yoga Body, Buddha Mind; the OM Yoga Mix CD series; and the OM Yoga DVDs.