This article was originally published on my Spacious Yoga facebook page in April, 2017. In the above video, Mr. Lehman describes one important reason that I don’t obsess over what I call “micro-alignment” principles in teaching yoga. There are some branches of yoga, as well as some outspoken teachers within the Ashtanga fold, who strongly insist on very rigid and dogmatic postural alignment. Some of these teachers tout their training in fields such as physiotherapy, kinesiology, etc, as giving them greater authority to dictate how the traditional postures should or shouldn’t be performed. They generally take a “one size fits all” approach to postural alignment, believing that there is a right way and a wrong way, and that everybody must conform to what they have decided is the right way. I had the misfortune of working with one of these teachers for a number of years, and it was neither a healthy or pleasant experience. I experienced deep physical trauma from being forced into rigid and unnatural alignment patterns. And, I was much less subject to her dictates than most of the other students were. As a teacher, I observe the practices of other students who come from extensive training with these types of teachers, and the tendency I see is that they don’t have any less pain than other students. In fact, in many cases they have more pain than others, and their movements tend to be rigid, stressed and lacking in freedom or fluidity. Their approach to the practice tends to be intellectual, rather than intuitive or embodied. They tend to have very little confidence in their own practices or their own bodies, often because these teachers have spent a lot of time pointing what is wrong with their bodies. Mistrust is a key feature in their practice experience, and probably also in their experience of life. We humans come in all different shapes and sizes. One of the most beautiful things about the Ashtanga practice is witnessing how people of different body shapes and sizes, strengths and weaknesses, can all find their own unique way to move through the standard postures and vinyasas of the Ashtanga series. My goal as a teacher tends to be to see how I can stimulate and inspire people to have enough confidence in themselves to find their own way though the postures and movements using the tools that they naturally have, rather than pointing out what is wrong with, or what they have to change about their bodies. When I do adjust alignment, it tends to be an attempt to bring them into a deeper experience of one of the bandhas, or to change very inefficient movement patterns. I don’t necessarily see them as “corrections”, but more as a suggestion to try a different way of moving. When a student complains about pain, I will sometimes make more extensive adjustments in alignment, but as Mr. Lehman states in the video, this is often more to break up a chronic pattern that has become stuck, rather than judge any particular pattern as being absolutely right or wrong. We will tend to feel most healthy when we are practicing, and moving through life in general, with a sense of embodiment, self – confidence and freedom to be who we are and to honour the instinctive and innate patterns of our own unique and natural body structure. Other language translations: The Russian translation of this article can be found here. Thank you to Anna Glinko for the translation.
This article was originally published on my Spacious Yoga facebook page in March, 2017. Bandha naturally emerges within a person when the two polarities of the spectrum of any given aspect of our existence are in relative balance and communication with one another. If we stand in the middle of a high mountain ridge, we can clearly see what lies on either side of the ridge. Similarly, in the balanced state of bandha we can easily feel the qualities of either end of the spectrum of our potential experience. From this vantage point, we have maximum freedom and spaciousness in our perspective and in our energy flow. From the middle ground, we can move in either direction at will, and hence have the greatest range of options available to us. The above photograph of Trikonasana B (which is not staged and was taken during a regular practice session) illustrates the physical dynamics of mula and uddiyana bandha nicely. This is one of my favorite postures for feeling the dynamics of bandha at work. Mula bandha arises when the opposing forces around the pelvis are in a dynamic balance with one another. In Trikonasana B, the pelvis and the spine are oriented parallel to the ground. The legs do the work to pull the pelvic bones backwards, away from the camera, along the axis of the earth. The right hand and the deeper muscles of the torso work to pull the spine and torso in the opposite direction, culminating in the crown of the head reaching towards the camera, along the axis of the earth. If you look carefully at the above picture, you can see that the crown of my head and my pelvic bones are well aligned and connected with each other, are moving in opposite directions and the movement of this force is parallel to the axis of the earth. There is maximum length and space through the midline of my body. This is mula bandha. The internal feeling that arises in this state is one of traction and suction through the midline. The pelvic floor comes online without any conscious effort or squeezing, and feels as if it is naturally being “suctioned” towards the crown of my head. This frees up energy to flow through the center of my body, along what is also known as the sushumna nadi. This energy flow can be tangibly felt, especially when the breath is slow, deep and full, which serves to brighten and deepen the subtler internal sensations. An important point to understand is that the tone in the pelvic floor is a natural result of the geometry of the posture. There is no conscious engaging or squeezing of the muscle, and doing so would actually inhibit or block the free flow of energy and breath. Uddiyana bandha manifests when there is a dynamic balance between the opposing forces around the core of the upper body. If you pay attention to my arms in this picture, you can see how this is achieved. The arms are working perpendicular the axis of the earth, along the axis of gravity – so uddiyana is manifesting in the opposite plane that mula is manifesting, if we consider the reality of the body in two dimensions. My right and left arm are well aligned with one another, are working along the axis of gravity, and are moving in opposite directions. The right hand is making a full and firm contact with the ground, and the rebounding/reactionary force of the ground is being transmitted up my right arm, through the core of my upper body, and into the left arm, which is reaching up towards the sky. The energy between my right hand and my left hand flows freely and without blockage. This is more difficult to attain than the flow of energy in mula bandha, as it does require an ability to release tension in the shoulders and upper back, which is typically where the flow of energy between the arms would get blocked. The release of tension is the key concept to understand in both mula and uddiyana bandha. In Trikonasana B, I see many people using force and strain to attempt to crank the upper arm and shoulder backwards, instead of simply letting it relax and naturally lengthen along the axis of gravity. Once we are able to tune in to the flow of energy along the axis of gravity, and apply the downwards pressure into the earth with the bottom hand, the rest of the work is simply about letting go and creating space to allow the energy to move through. This ultimately feels relaxing and….spacious. The net result of uddiyana bandha is that we have maximum expansion and spreading of energy in the upper body, perpendicular to the axis of expansion and spreading that mula bandha generates. Mula and uddiyana bandha ultimately work to create space and expansion in opposite planes in our two dimensional model of the body. They are both attained through correct geometry and harnessing of the natural forces that arise between our bodies, our breath and the earth. They work together reciprocally (mula will enhance uddiyana and uddiyana will enhance mula), and they ultimately communicate with each other via the medium of the flow of relaxed and deep breathing. When mula and uddiyana are both in place, the body is free of all unnecessary tension (whatever is NOT necessary to hold the posture or state of being), the nerves relax, the breath naturally slows down and expands, and we are at the peak of our physical, mental and energetic potential as living organic beings on this planet. Other language translations: The Russian translation of this article can be found here. Thank you to Anna Glinko for the translation.
This article was originally published on my Spacious Yoga facebook page in September 2016. Sukha….. Bandha arises naturally within an Ashtanga practitioner when the qualities of sukha (softness, lightness, ease) and sthira (firmness, stability, strength) are both established and cultivated within the context of a dynamic relationship with one another. The commonly held belief that mula bandha arises from consciously squeezing the pelvic floor (or other muscles in that area) is incorrect, in my opinion and experience. I attempt to teach the essence of how to find a more relaxed and natural experience of mula bandha during my immersion and pranayama courses. In response to a question during my recently completed immersion course, I explained that the “sthira” aspect of bandha arises from establishing a full and conscious contact with the earth – not from gripping or clenching anything. Whichever parts of our bodies are touching the ground must engage in a deliberate relationship with the ground. This contact must be firm, full, and sensitive. “Mula” is often translated as meaning “root”. Establishing a deep connection to the ground, with our bodies, is the essence of rooting. Once this rooting is established, and the energy of the earth begins to flow up and into the body, we must then find “sukha” in order for the energy of the earth to spread, percolate and distribute itself everywhere. We simply need to “get out of the way” of that rising energy who’s natural tendency is to spread and expand. This requires a softening, a release of tension, and an allowing for relaxed expansion to occur. Any form of clenching or gripping will inhibit this relaxed expansion from taking place. When helping students with backbending, I notice that the vast majority of practitioners are most blocked in the hip and pelvic extension aspect of backbending. I feel that this is often at least partly due to a forceful misapplication of the concept of mula bandha. Mula bandha is firm, but it is also relaxed. It is like a tree, which sinks strong roots into the ground, and then pulls the nourishment of the earth upwards and distributes it through all of its branches and leaves in a relaxed and expansive growth. The roots and lower trunk of a tree are firm. The branches and leaves are soft and flexible and can shift and change in adaptation to environmental influences. As I sit here typing this, I am watching the trees around my porch sway in the gentle breeze. Even the biggest and strongest trees are soft enough to sway and move with the gentlest breeze. This is sukha. Yet, if a storm with gale force winds blows in, even the smallest tree will remain stable and rooted, and will not be blown over or destroyed. This is sthira. Mula bandha is there in nature! Most people tend to be more naturally inclined to either the “sukha” or “sthira” qualities. The goal should be to create a balance. Whichever quality we are most lacking in should be consciously cultivated, so that it can compliment the quality which we are most naturally inclined towards. The two qualities also need to inform each other reciprocally. A good teacher always attempts to learn from their students. Observing the different ways that the Ashtanga practice works on different body structures and different personalities is a wonderful way to understand the practice more thoroughly. As a teacher, I also find inspiration from those students who have deeply embodied some aspect of the practice which I could still cultivate more of in my own practice. Working with these two women over the past few weeks has given me a lot of inspiration to seek more sukha in my own backbending. When beginning to arch back into my own kapotasana over the past couple of weeks, I have thought of them and attempted to imbibe some of their softness into my own body. Few people will ever be able to practice kapotasana as deeply as they do. The important thing is not to compare, but to note the quality which makes this depth possible, and to earnestly attempt to apply it, to whatever degree we can manifest. There is always potential to evolve and grow. Thanks for the inspiration Min G Noh and Boyoung Kim 🙂 Other language translations: The Korean translation of this article can be found here. Thanks to Min G Noh for the Korean translation. The Russian translation of this article can be found here. Thank you to Anna Glinko for the Russian translation.