I will never forget the first time I heard a room of over 100 people lion’s roar. As someone who is quite sensitive to sound and energy, it took everything inside of me to stay in the pose and not leave the room.
This workshop was early in my yoga career, and though I had the Lululemon pants and Manduka mat and could finally hold Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) without toppling (well, most of the time), it wasn’t until that day that I realized that even after seven years of practicing and a year of teaching, I hadn’t allowed myself to go deeper than the poses. When students would have these loud vocal releases, it honestly made me uncomfortable.
On that day though, as I sat in my upright Pigeon Pose with sweat dribbling down the sides of face, I thought I would try something different. Rather than using it as an opportune time to go to the bathroom, I came up to my fingertips and puffed up my chest. I took a huge inhale, stuck my tongue out, and roared like I had never roared before. And my goodness, did it feel good! So much so that I did an extra one for good measure, by myself.
I had not only been holding my breath in this workshop, but in every aspect of my life. I was holding on for dear life. My mother had just died from lung cancer and I had every detail of my schedule precariously stacked, like a house of cards, not leaving any space for stopping and therefore, grieving.
I think my fear in letting go was that I would feel like spilled milk on the floor, unable to pull myself back together. But after letting out a huge sigh, after allowing the tears that followed, I did not feel out of control, as I feared. I felt loosened, but also stronger.
My practice shifted in that fateful workshop from something I did to work out my body, to a place I go to work out my emotions. Pain lives in our body and therefore we can use our bodies to heal.
Let yourself fall apart, to come back together
Have you ever had a good cry or yelled really loudly in the privacy of your car and felt better on other side, like you have been cleansed and released?
I don’t think I’m the only one holding it all together, so as not to “fall apart.” Many of us do this. We present the emotions we deem acceptable, such as happiness or surprise, and we hide away the other sides of ourselves. But when we grip to keep it together, we risk crumbling into pieces instead.
We need to let the steam out of the pot, lest the top be blown off. We need to let our emotions out lest they eat away at us from the inside out. We need to let ourselves fall apart in order to come back together again.
Practice falling apart with Visvamitrasana
Visvamitrasana embodies this idea. It is perhaps one of the most complex asanas in existence. It has so many elements, from being an arm balance to a standing pose to a side bend and a twist. It requires mobility in nearly every part of the body—the wrist, the shoulders, the hips, the hamstrings, the hip flexors, the spine (just to name a few!).
This pose requires a willingness to open up, but it also necessitates the ability to pull everything back together. Because while, yes, flexibility is necessary to get into the pose, it is really our strength that keeps the leg perched on the bottom arm and the back leg planted.
What if we let ourselves fall apart sometimes? And where better to do so than one of the safest places we go: our mat? It is not until we let ourselves completely unspool that we discover what we need to bring it all back in. And when we do cobble ourselves back together on the other sides of such a release, we get to see just how strong we are. That we allowed ourselves to fall apart not because we were weak, but because we are strong.
This sequence leading up to Visvamitrasana will help us experience the strength it takes to expand openly.
*Please note, the full posture requires the body to be quite warm, so we recommend doing at least two full rounds of Surya Namaskara A before beginning.
Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana abduction variation (Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog with leg to side)
If we are going to let ourselves fall apart a bit, it is best to do it in an environment where we feel totally comfortable. Abducting the lifted leg’s hip in Downward-Facing Dog Pose is an excellent place to feel what happens when things start to come apart and how to bring yourself back together.
From Down Dog, inhale and lift your right leg to the sky. Keep your right toes pointing down, so the hip stays in a neutral rotation in the transverse plane and bring your leg over to the right side. Straighten your left arm and hug your left side body in toward your midline. Press into both hands. Have your gaze toward the rear of your mat, so your neck is long, and ears align to your biceps. Slowly bring your leg back to center and lower it on an exhale. Repeat on your left side.
Baddha Trikonasana (Bound Triangle Pose)
A huge component of our peak pose is the ability to get our leg over our shoulder. Practicing this action in Trikonasana is not only a great way to warm-up the hip and shoulders, but it shows us just how strong we are as we work to keep our chest open against the heavier forces of gravity (and our leg!).
Turn to face the long end of your mat. Step your feet out wide, about four feet apart, and turn your right leg out. Align your feet heel to heel and angle your back foot and hip slightly in. On an inhalation, reach your arms wide to the sides and on your exhalation, bend your front knee starting in Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). If you have a full binding practice, reach your left arm underneath your leg, clasping your fingers or right wrist. If you are unable to clasp, hold a strap between your hands. Slowly straighten your front leg. Lean open to help turn your chest toward the sky. Align the top of your head with your tailbone. Hold here and breathe for 5 breaths. Release your arms. Press into your feet and inhale your torso upright. Bring your hands onto your hips. Parallel your feet and switch legs.
Parighasana (Gate Pose)
Think of this pose as a literal opening of the flood gates. We often hold things inside until there is an overflow. Opening the flood gates allows a controlled release of feelings, to keep a floor of emotions at bay.
Remain facing the long end of your mat. Come down onto your knees, so you are standing on your shins. Step your right leg out to the side and outwardly rotate your thigh, so that your toes are pointing to the front of your mat. Point your right foot, pressing the ball of your foot into the floor. Allow your back hip to turn inward slightly, which will widen your lower back. On an inhalation, reach both arms overhead. As you exhale side bend toward your right leg placing your right hand on the floor inside of your leg on your fingertips. Reach your left arm overhead in line with your ear. Gaze to the side of the room or turn toward your top arm. Remain for 10 breaths. To come out, root into your left shin and inhale your torso upright Lower your arms by your sides. Come back to standing on your shins and take your second side.
Vasisthasana Variation (Side Plank Pose Variation)
OK, time to fly. The more we can express our emotions, the lighter and freer we feel. Think of this variation as a celebration of all the space you have been carving out for yourself. It is also a great way to build upper body strength for the arm balance component of our peak.
From Plank Pose, bring your feet together. Roll to your right outer foot and lift your left arm to the sky. Rotate your left leg externally, “Charlie Chaplin-ing” your feet. On an inhalation, lift your left leg up, without grabbing your foot. Press strongly into your bottom hand and outer foot. The lifted leg is both outwardly rotated and abducted. Roll your top hip forward slightly. Revolve your chest open and perhaps look up. After five breaths, release the lifted leg back to traditional Vasisthasana. Lower your top arm coming back through Plank and take your second side.
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Twists can be metaphorically cleansing, but like when you are doing the laundry or washing the dishes, we often have to get dirty, before we can get clean. As the saying goes, “we have to feel it to heal it.”
From Dandasana (Staff Pose), bend your right knee to the side and pull your heel toward your groin. Abduct your left leg to the left. Keep your torso facing forward. As you inhale, reach both arms to the sky. On an exhalation, side bend over your left leg. Placing your left elbow on the floor inside your leg or on a block. Your top arm can continue to reach overhead, or some people will grab their left foot. Inhale for length and on your exhale, twist your spine upward toward the ceiling through the gateway of your arms. Turn your neck to look up or continue to look straight ahead. Remain for 10 breaths. Coming out, inhale your torso back upright. Return to Dandasana and switch sides.
Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana (Compass Pose)
Now that we have been cleansed, we can see our truth more clearly. Compass Pose helps guide our heart and intentions toward our true north. It represents the clarity and direction possible on the other side of riding out strong emotions.
Before you begin, loop a strap around your right foot. From sitting, bend your left knee, pulling your heel toward your groin so your knee points forward. Bring your right leg over your upper arm, like a vise, and hold your right foot or the strap with your left hand. Reach your right arm out to the side, up on your fingertips. On an inhalation, begin to straighten the right leg as you exhale and turn your chest toward the left side of the room. Either keep your neck in line with your chest or up to the top arm. Remain for 10 breaths. Come out on an exhalation. Re-bend your right knee and lower your leg. If it was helpful, place the strap on your left foot before doing the second side.
Visvamitrasana variation (Pose Dedicated to Visvamitra)
This may be as far as you go today. Personally, this is as far as I choose to go in this pose these days since shoulder surgery. When you come up against a stopping point or challenging part of a posture, what does that feel like in your body? What do you say to yourself internally? Rather than forcing any frustration, anger, or disappointment away, what if you allowed those feelings to wash over you. Having played in the waves of your emotions this entire sequence, you have experienced firsthand that in order to not be overtaken, we must learn to surf.
From hands and knees, step your right foot forward and kickstand your left shin behind you. If you needed the strap in Compass Pose, it would be good to use it here. Snuggle your right shoulder as far underneath the leg as you can, pressing strongly into your right hand. Take your left arm overhead to either grab the outer foot or strap. Take an inhale and on an exhalation, begin to turn your chest open, lifting your right leg off the floor and straightening it. Hold here for five breaths, before bending your right knee, releasing your foot with your hand and lowering your foot back to the floor. Repeat on your second side.
Visvamitrasana (Pose Dedicated to Visvamitra)
Probably one of the most expansive shapes of its kind. We will utilize all of the previous work to help ourselves know where to keep it together and where we can let go. Please remember that just because we are leading up to this shape does not mean you have to do it perfectly or at all.
Start in Parsvakonasana, with your right leg forward and a strap ready to go around your front foot. Get your right leg as far over your shoulder as you are able to with your right palm on the floor, slightly behind the outer thigh. Your arm will become a kickstand momentarily. Inhale your left arm overhead and grab the outside of your right foot or the strap. Stand strongly into your back leg. Shift the weight toward your right hand so that you can start to pick up and straighten your right leg, leaning open with your torso like a twist. Try to create a gateway between your arms for your torso to turn and look up to your top arm or keep your chin in line with your chest. Once in, hold for a few breaths, but make the coming out—the coming back together, if you will—more interesting than the actual pose by going slowly.
Release your right foot and place it back on the floor, returning to Parsvakonasana. Bring both hands to the floor and step back to Down Dog for a breath before setting up for your second leg.