The great eighth-century yogin and philosopher Shankaracharya said, "Yoga asana is that in which meditation flows spontaneously and ceaselessly, not that which destroys happiness." In other words, when yoga poses are well aligned, they feel so good internally that the mind is practically stunned with awe, and the breath flows right up the front of the spine into the spacious radiance of the body's central axis. The experience is beautiful and sublime. Realistically, our practices can rarely be called sublime. The mind and ego seem programmed to stay out of the central axis, making practice a superficial exercise in self-improvement rather than the precise observation of, and insight into, the nature of our body and mind.
An excellent way to counteract this tendency is to link the two basic internal patterns that control inhaling and exhaling. These are called prana (upward spreading breath) and apana (downward contracting breath). The prana controls inhaling; it is felt as an upward floating, spreading, branching, and flowering pattern. Its home is the core of the heart. The apana controls exhaling. It is the downward rooting flow, which contracts, or tones, into a seed point at the center of the pelvic floor. This small area in the perineum is also known as the mula, or root, in yoga. The poses in this series will increase your awareness of apana by bringing attention to the pelvic floor, which will help you feel rooted to the earth, grounded, and calm.
With each breath you take, prana and apana organize the movement of bones and muscles. Prana lengthens, or extends, the spine (as in a backbend) and brings the legs into internal rotation; apana rounds, or flexes, the spine (as in a forward bend) and spins the legs externally. In the sequence that follows, I strongly encourage you to go beyond the external forms of the asana and into the realm where prana joins apana. You can experience this joining energetically, by feeling how the two pull against each other as you breathe. And you can feel it physically by playing with the resulting extensions, flexions, spins, and counterspins that naturally occur in your spine and your limbs as you do the poses. By practicing this way, you will learn to cultivate the full spectrum of breathing and muscular rhythms that goes on deep inside your body, which will enable you to tap into the radiant nature of your core body and bring you into meditation.
To start this process, be mindful of your breath. In each pose, make the gaze of the eyes steady and soft, and empty the palate by relaxing the mouth into a Mona Lisa smile. Then begin to draw the breath into long, pleasant threads as you work in the pose. After some time with the breath flowing in this way, the four corners of your pelvic floor—the coccyx , the pubic bone, and the two sitting bones—will simultaneously drop, and the center of the pelvic floor will draw up like a flame into what's known as Mula Bandha (Root Lock), forming an intelligent base that brings the rest of your body into harmony. When the mind is distracted, the apana and the prana are not integrated, and the coccyx and the pubic bone will not pull down at the same time. Pay attention to dropping the coccyx, which strongly stimulates the apana pattern, at the same time as dropping the pubic bone, which strongly enhances the prana pattern.
The strong work of grounding, connecting to the earth, and of spiraling and counterspiraling that you'll do in this sequence is like laying down a root to hold on to the earth. If you can do this work with a sense of kindness and compassion, and with an empty palate, the root will sprout and, as it grows, it will bear flowers of openness and natural insight.
1. Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch)
Stand with your feet about one leg-length apart. Turn the right foot out 90 degrees and the back foot in 20 to 60 degrees. The back foot should be angled just enough to maintain all three of its arches (the transverse, inner, and outer arches) and to allow for the rotation and counter-rotation required to milk the internal essence of the posture. Line up the heel of your front foot with the heel of your back foot. Square your hips in the direction of your leading foot, and tone the thigh muscles of the back leg. Next, press the palms together in Prayer Position behind the heart. To do this, roll the shoulders completely forward, crawl the hands up the lower thoracic spine with the palms turned out, and then roll the shoulders back to bring the palms together. Now inhale, toning both legs and body as if preparing for a backbend. Exhaling, fold forward, stretching the chin out over the spreading toes of the right foot. Gradually work the chin toward the shin without straining or compressing the upper portion of the neck at the base of the skull.
Notice the two intertwined rotations, or spirals, in the front leg in Parsvottanasana: the primary spiral, which you have to do to get into the pose, and the counterspiral, which you add in order to balance the pose and bring your awareness inside. The counterspiral doesn't destroy the primary spiral; it wraps around it. Once both are set, you squeeze them into each other. The primary spiral is the external spin at the head of the femur, which takes the outer edge of the hip joint back; the counterspiral is the internal spin that grounds through the inner edge of the foot and the root of the big toe.
Next, draw the kneecaps up while micro-bending the legs to keep the hamstrings toned. This action draws the pubic bone back while simultaneously keeping the coccyx curling down into the perineum. This switches on the pelvic floor, which almost feels as if it were humming, giving you more refined control over your joints and creating integration and harmony throughout your body.
When the hip joint of the leading leg is fully drawn back, you'll use your abdominal muscles (the external obliques and rectus abdominis) to create the final, crowning action: Twist the kidney area on the left side down and around toward the inner knee of your right leg. At the same time, apply an external rotation in the back leg as a complement to its primary inward spiral. Doing this will activate the pelvic floor while you release the palate. Refine the posture for at least five breaths. Inhale to come out. Pause for a breath or two before you do the pose on the left side with the same care as on the right.
2. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), bend your right knee and hold the right big toe with the middle and index fingers of the right hand. Then inhale as you extend the leg. Push the toe against the fingers to activate the initial inward spin of the leg. Bend the right arm and pull up strongly. At the same time, pull the foot down with the hamstring muscles to resist the upward pull of the arm. Take the outer edge of the right hip joint down by using your external rotators (the deep muscles around the hip joints that externally rotate your legs). In this initial form, stand up tall with your heart open and buoyant like the sun.
Next, bow forward on the exhalation, bringing the chin toward the knee. The standing leg should be micro-bent, rather than locked in hyperextension. Keep the diaphragm and kidney area spreading wide. The challenge of balancing on one leg encourages the abdominal muscles to twist across the midline, which brings the kidney area on the left side forward, toward the inner right knee. This is wonderful for opening the channels for downward apanic flow. If you really struggle with balance in this pose, try Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) instead. In both the reclining and standing versions, the apanic flow down to earth is easy to feel, as is the relationship between the deep hip rotators and the intelligent tone in the pelvic floor.
After five breaths or so bowing forward, inhale and stand up tall again. Then, exhaling, move the right leg out to the side. Initially, drop the outer right hip in external rotation to move the leg out. Drop the right sitting bone and then, finally, the pubic bone. This will have the effect of dropping all four corners of the pelvic floor, uniting the prana and the apana to establish a completely integrated form. After five breaths, inhale, bring the right leg forward, and release it to float for a few breaths before returning it to the floor. Then repeat the whole sequence with the left leg.
3. Tiriang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana (Three-Limbed Forward Bend)
In Tiriang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana, you will refine the spirals and counterspirals in the legs, which form the proper foundation for spinal and hip movements in this pose and in Kraunchasana. From Dandasana (Staff Pose), fold the left leg back at the knee. Roll the calf muscles out to the side to allow the outer left thigh to drop toward the floor without catching on the calf. There should be no discomfort in the knee joint. If necessary, sit on a folded blanket or block until the knee can close more deeply. Hold the foot of the straight leg and inhale.
Straighten the back to take it into slight extension, and exaggerate the pranic—upward moving and spreading—pattern. Scoop the lower belly up to activate the pelvic floor and to wake up and stimulate the prana and apana. Next, exhale and fold forward. Firmly apply the counterspirals in the pose. In the folded leg, find and use the outward, or external, rotating action. In the straight leg, find the inward rotation. Notice how the simultaneous occurrence of these spirals naturally tunes the pelvic floor muscles to just the right tone for internal meditation. Counter the posture by doing a vinyasa (linking Plank, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, and Adho Mukha Svanasana together) and then step or jump back to take a seated position before you do the other side.
4. Pasasana (Noose Pose)
Pasasana can be a formidable pose at first, but if you maintain your sense of humor and persist in playing with it, you'll grow to love it. Pasasana benefits the downward moving apana—it is a twist that requires you to flex your spine and should be entered on an extra-deep exhalation. It also releases tension in the waist and corrects imbalances in the waist, abdomen, and hips, while integrating the arms with the belly. All of this downward moving attention and muscular release is useful preparation for the upward flowering of Kraunchasana. It is not an easy pose, but it is well worth the patient practice required to do it.
There are two versions of this challenging "Noose Pose." The first form (shown above), squatting with the feet at hip width and wrapping the arm around one leg, can be used if you are just learning the pose or if you are pregnant. It is an excellent preparation for the full pose. To enter it, squat, then inhale and lift the right arm and shoulder blade high. Exhale and reach forward, turning the arm completely in while spreading the right shoulder blade as far away from the spine as possible. Keep the palm of the right hand turned out and grasp the left hand or wrist with the right. Ideally the left palm should also be facing out. Turn the head to gaze up and around to the horizon over the left shoulder.
As you breathe, work on the subtleties of the asana by broadening the front edges of the armpits, releasing the palate, and dropping the corners of the pelvic floor. Inhale as you come out of the pose, do a vinyasa, and then repeat the pose using the left arm as the noose. After doing both sides, you can try the full version of Pasasana, if you know it.
Whichever version of the pose you are in, take advantage of its shape by following the exhalations all the way to their true end. Keep the sitting bones and the heels heavy, especially on the side of the inside hip—that's the right hip if you went into the pose with your right arm. The right side waist will likely become compressed during the initial exhalation and wrap of the arm, which can make the sitting bone on the right side feel high. Allow counteractions such as these to come into play gradually so that they can complement, rather than cancel, the primary actions of an asana. Work the arms mindfully to lovingly squeeze the legs as you keep the front edges of the armpits wide.
5. Kraunchasanam (Heron Pose)
Finally, all that downward flow, or apana, that you've cultivated finds the earth in Kraunchasana. It also offers the opportunity to feel the mysterious Mula Bandha, also known as the "Bonding of the Root."
Begin with the left leg folded back as you did in Tiriang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana. Clasp the right wrist with the left hand and, with the hands turned outward, hook them around the right foot. Then straighten the right leg, and spread and partially point the toes.
Engage the same spirals and counterspirals of the lifted leg as you did in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana or Parsvottanasana: Take the outer edge of the hip joint back, then counterspiral by pressing through the inner edge of the foot and the root of the big toe. Press your arms down against your leg and create resistance by pulling your leg up, which will stabilize the hip joint and further lengthen the hamstrings. Keeping the arms straight, exaggerate the upward moving, or pranic, energy of the pose by lifting the heart area into slight extension and spreading and dropping the shoulder blades down the back like a cape.
Finally, tilt the head back with the eyes downcast to stretch the scalene muscles in the sides of the neck. This is the base position from which to enter the full pose. Relish the prana pattern at this stage so that you can maintain it in the full posture.
Come into the full pose by drawing the straight leg toward vertical, using bent or bowed arms. As you bring your chin toward the shin or knee of the straight leg, wrap the kidney area on the left side forward and squeeze it toward the inner knee of the right leg. Take the right sitting bone down to the floor and drag it along the mat forward and toward the left sitting bone. This initially broadens the tissues in the front portion of the pelvic floor. When interfaced with the open buoyancy of the heart, this action begins to draw the central point of the perineum up like a flame. After several breaths, release your right leg, then step back on an exhalation to Downward-Facing Dog. Do a vinyasa. Then, take a moment to root your energy down in order to savor the upward unfolding of the pose on the other side.
Richard Freeman has been a student of yoga since 1968, having spent more than 10 years in Asia studying various yoga traditions. His unique metaphorical teaching style emphasizes the internal form of Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by his principal teacher, K. Pattabhi Jois. He is the director of the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado, and his CDs and DVDs are widely acclaimed. For more information, visit www.yogaworkshop.com.