This is another in a series of articles that we are publishing on the yogayoga website. If you are interested in further reading, we stock all Donna’s books at the studio.
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(Half Moon Pose)
A ballet teacher of mine used to say, “You cannot lie with movement.” No matter how hard you may try to cover up the body’s truths, your movement will always express your attitudes, capabilities, and limits—and your honest acceptance or dishonest denial of those truths.
What does it mean to be honest in movement? Let me illustrate by comparing two of my students. Jim comes infrequently to class, but when he does turn up he expects to have improved. He tries hard—so hard that he’s willing to sacrifice just about anything to achieve the appearance of the pose. In order to put his body where he thinks it should be. He will hold his breath, round his back, and torque his knees. I reassure him that relaxing is more likely to bring him success than aggressive striving; I encourage him to respect his limitations rather than bulldoze through them; I caution him about safe alignment—but none of this makes any impact on Jim. He’s always looking for a way to bypass the reality of who he band take a shortcut to an idealized pose.
In contrast, Joanne is a regular, earnest participant with the flexibility of an Ironing board. In her standing forward bends, she can only tip a few degrees from vertical before meeting resistance. At that point, Joanne becomes completely absorbed in the process of encountering herself. Although she can’t move as far into the poses as my other students. I can see she is searching to find a harmony that makes sense to her body—and she is devoting her entire locus to the process. I consider Joanne one of my most “advanced” students. Advanced” doesn’t measure how far you go into a pose: It measures how well you know where you are. When I watch Joanne working in class. I’m transfixed by the beauty of her movement—still, serene, and so concentrated the air sizzles around her.
How willing are we to be honest in practice? Are we willing to respect the truth of who we are and where we are? When we sacrifice integrity to serve an external form, we make the asana the goal rather than a means of finding out more about ourselves—and we miss the point of yoga. We tell these little lies with the body to appear to be something that we are not. Even if we manage to force our bodies into the desired position, we have the most important ingredient in the process behind—our self.
One of the signs of a truly advanced student is an interest in returning, over and over again, to the basics of yoga practice. Like an accomplished musician returning to the task of producing one clear note, mature students never tire of refining the fundamentals. They know, as only those who have practiced (or years can know, that without solid grounding, a practice is continually sabotaged. Lack of understanding always shows through, just as a note slightly off pitch brings attention to itself.
Your Mobile Core
One such fundamental principle is the importance of always maintaining a mobile core. If you constantly note
whether the core of your body moves in response to every breath, you can gauge whether you’re working honestly in your asanas.
When you breathe, the diaphragm moves up and down. Just as a stingray swimming in the ocean displaces the water above and below it with each undulation of its body, the diaphragm displaces the organs above and below it on each Incoming and outgoing breath. As the soft contents of your body shift to and fro with each breath, the spinal column also oscillates, first lengthening from the center of the spine to the head and tail, then subtly retracting. This mobility in your core allows you to feed the connection between your center and your limbs, and allows all the part of your body to find a relationship to each other through the navel. A mobile core also allows you to feel what you already know, giving you access to your “gut feelings”—your instincts and your Intuitions.
What amazes me most about this movement at our core is that it happens without any effort on our part. Ask a friend to lay belly-down on the floor and observe her torso; you will see the spinal column move with every breath. We are all being moved, all the time, by a larger Mover, if we simply allow it to happen. Yet often when we come into asanas, we become rigid in our core, arresting the natural pulsation of the body. What happens to make us stop this beautiful, natural movement?
Holding ourselves rigid is not a bodily necessity. We create our rigidity by our ideas about ourselves and our relationship to the world. It’s not that we can’t move, it’s that we refuse to be moved. Many factors may make us tighten our center: fear, emotional memories, injuries, and habit. But at the heart of this holding lies our desire for certainty.
In a constantly changing world, we search for stability and predictability we carry this into our yoga practice, hoping to find an absolutely correct position we can hold onto. We think such certainty will make us feel better, and sometimes— momentarily—it does. But eventually, holding a static image of ourselves deadens our practice, removing the natural rhythms of oscillation, change, and even chaos that we need to be fully, dynamically alive. Asanas come alive through our questioning-our curiosity, our openness to change, and our delight in discovery—rather than by finding a set answer which we can safely repeat in every practice. If you already know the answer, why bother repeating the question?
For your asanas to change and grow, you must learn to sustain a mobile core in each pose—and then allow the movement of your breath to slowly open your body. For transformation to occur, you have to drop your preconceptions.
Let’s use Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) to explore this process. To circumvent your habits, let’s try coming into the asana in an unusual way. Often you can feel openness and expansion in your center more easily if you begin from a condensed center. Begin by standing in Tadasana. Then curl forward over your legs, bending the knees generously. lf touching the floor strains your lower back or the back of your legs, support your hands on a block (Figure 1). Imagine yourself as a tiny bird curled inside an egg. Connect with your breath, and, as you feel ready, shift your weight onto your left leg. Slowly begin to break the casing of the egg by unfurling your limbs, head, and tall away from your center, and bringing your left hand to the floor. Press your supporting foot down into the ground, gradually straightening the leg.
Figure 1. Gentle Forward Bend.
Stand with your feet together or hip-width apart. Then curl forward over your legs, bending your knees generously. If touching the floor strains your lower back or the backs of your legs, support your hands on a block.
Initiate the opening from your center, allowing the limbs to follow. For now, place your top hand on your belly, encouraging your abdomen to turn upward (Figure 2). As you feel your abdomen begin to rotate, place your right hand a little higher and encourage the middle of your torso to turn upward. Finally, place your hand on your heart and lungs and encourage your chest area to open. At each stage check that you can feel your core oscillating under your fingers. If you find balancing very precarious, practice with the back of your trunk and your extended leg against a wall for support.
Figure 2. Transition to Ardha Chandrasana.
Shift your weight onto the left leg, bring your left arm to the floor, and slowly unfurl your limbs, including head and tail, away from your center. Press your standing foot into the ground, gradually straightening the leg. Place your top hand on your belly, gently encouraging your abdomen to turn upward.
By now, you’ve probably discovered that your first Instinct as you shifted your weight onto one leg was to hold your breath and contract your center. It’s possible to do Ardha Chandrasana this way, organizing your limbs around a contracted center, but your movement possibilities will be limited. In Figure 3 you can see how the model is contracting her center while thrusting her limbs ambitiously into space. She is balancing, but only by holding her breath and contracting her abdomen. Her position is unstable, and the action of her outer body completely contradicts the movement of her core. In other words, she’s cheating.
Figure 3. Improper Ardha Chadrasana with a Contracted Core.
The model is contracting her center while thrusting her limbs ambitiously into space. Her position is unstable because the action of her outer body completely contradicts the movement of her core. She is managing to balance, but only by holding her breath and clenching her abdomen.
Let’s practice honesty in action. Experiment with coming into the pose on each side, exploring what you need to do to balance if you don’t contract your center and hold your breath. It’s not Important If it takes you six months to figure out this little trick. The time will be well spent. As my ballet teacher also taught me, if you do a movement correctly you grow strong, flexible, and stable very quickly. If you continue to do it badly, you stay weak, rigid, and unstable forever. You must be willing not to care whether you finish the pose today or tomorrow, or whether everyone else in the class Is already balancing. After all, this is your yoga. As Todd Walton points out in his warm and insightful book, Open Body: Creating Your Own Yoga (Avon Books, 1998) you can never be Swami Somebody Else.
As you discover how to maintain an open, breathing center as you move Into Ardha Chandrasana, gradually extend your limbs out from your core, imagine yourself as a starfish with sensitive limbs expanding out from your navel area. Stay In the pose for at least 10 breaths, and then return to the curled forward bend from which you began (Figure 1).
From Triangle to Half Moon
Now let’s explore coming into Ardha Chandrasana from Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). With your feet 4 to 4½ feet apart, turn the right foot in about 30 degrees and the left foot out 180 degrees. As you expand on your inhalation, raise your arms to shoulder height; as you exhale. Slowly tip your torso over your left leg, placing your hand on a block next to your outer ankle, on your shin, or on the floor, depending on your flexibility. Take a moment to check that your left sitting bone is directly over the Line between your left heel and your right Instep. If your sitting bone is behind this line, your left knee will be twisted inward; more important, your entire torso will be thrust forward of the line of support of your left leg. Instead of remaining expansive, your torso will have to take on the supportive role that rightfully belongs to your legs, causing you to hold your breath, tighten your abdomen, and harden the muscles along your spine. In contrast, when your torso lines up properly over your supporting leg, your spine can participate in the oscillations caused by your breathing. Gradually, as you become more adept at allowing yourself to be moved by the breath, your entire body will alternately expand into and condense away from the space around you.
Figure 4. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).
Line up your left sitting bone with your left heel and your right instep. If your sitting bone drops behind this line, you’ll force your torso to support itself instead of receiving support from your legs; you’ll end up holding your breath, tightening your abdomen, and hardening the muscles along your spine.
To make the transition from Triangle into Ardha Chandrasana, bend your left leg, again making sure that you don’t turn the left foot and knee in, throwing your left sitting bone back. As in Trikonasana, this misalignment will throw you off balance, causing your torso to support rather than be supported by your legs. Reach your left hand to the floor beyond your left foot, and draw your right leg lightly along the ground until you feel the weight of your body come over your left foot (Figure 5). Imagine once again that you are that tiny bird breaking out of its shell. Press your supporting leg into the ground and gradually unfold, initiating the opening from your center. Because it’s so easy to throw your top (right) arm behind your body before opening your center, keep that hand resting on your belly until you have established a mobile core. Then explore extending your limbs into space. Work first to find the clearest inner alignment between your center and your head and tail; then find the connections from your center to your legs, and finally the connections from your center to your arms.
Figure 5. Transition from Trikonasana to Ardha Chandrasana.
In Triangle Pose, bend the left leg and reach your left hand to the floor beyond your left foot. Draw the right leg along the ground until your weight comes over the standing leg. (Make sure you don’t turn your left foot and knee in, throwing your left sitting bone back.) Initiating the opening from your center, press your supporting leg into the ground and gradually unfold, but keep your right hand resting on your belly.
Now comes the real challenge. Dare to expand further into space as you inhale (Figure 6). Allow your entire body to be moved by the ebb and flow of your breath. To remain honest in the pose— to maintain your mobile, breathing core—you must have impeccable alignment. When you breathe from an open core, your center of gravity moves slightly with each inhalation and exhalation. Committing yourself to your breath means that you have to be perfectly balanced; otherwise, the natural oscillations intrinsic to breathing quickly knock you over. In contrast, when you hold your breath and prevent the natural oscillations from occurring, you stay up by rigidly organizing your body around a fixed point. But this fixed point may be far from your true center. In reality you are holding yourself off balance, an instability you can only discover by daring to breathe freely. Breathing freely is the ultimate test of good alignment.
Figure 6. Ardha Chandrasana.
Connect with your breath. Sense your whole body expanding with each inhalation and condensing with each exhalation. Then, as you inhale, extend your limbs into space. Find the clearest possible inner alignment between your center and your head, tail, legs, and arms. As you remain in the pose, don’t balance by becoming rigid. Continue to allow yourself to be moved and changed by each breath.
When your curiosity is satiated, slowly bend your left knee, carefully placing the right foot back onto the ground. Keeping the torso parallel to the floor, straighten both legs to return to Trikonasana. When you are ready, continue on to the second side.
Three Steps to Mastery
The work we’ve lust explored in Trikonasana and Ardha Chandrasana is an example of a three-step process you can use to guide you into any asana. First, establish your mobile, breathing core. Simply ask yourself, am I allowing my breath to move my central body? Is my core soft and mobile? If your core is mobile, your belly, your entire spinal column, and all your internal organs will undulate with every breath.
Second, connect your mobile core to your periphery. Beginning with awareness of your mobile core, find harmonious relationships between that core and each of your six limbs—head, tail, arms, and legs. All movement should connect smoothly from your core to your limbs and back again, and all your appendages should communicate with each other through the core, in any asana, your alignment helps you find an energetic continuity throughout the body, bringing all parts into play as one whole. If you can find clear pathways connecting your core and your limbs, your breath will move unimpeded from your center out and then back in again.
Finally, no matter what configuration you find yourself in, allow yourself to be moved and changed by your breath. Make your pose a “soft intention”—an open query rather than a quest for a definitive answer. As you move towards mastery in the asana, relinquish your attachment to being the mover of the pose; instead, let yourself & moved. Then there is no one left to do the posture, only the posture living itself through you.
Go slowly as you work through each step of this process. A mobile core Is a source of enormous power and vitality, but you can only tap into this source through direct experience. In other words, striving to look like you have an open center may give you the appearance, but never the true experience, of a mobile, breathing core. Let yourself experiment. Make mistakes; fall over; take as much time as you need. Whether you attain any specific pose becomes irrelevant once you make a commitment to honor and respect where you really are. When you practice with such honesty, your progress toward physical mastery constantly brings you back to your true self.
• Increases circulation to the internal organs.
• Provides a mild inversion.
• Cools & calms the nervous system.
• Develops balancing skills.
• Increases flexibility of the hip joints.
• Strengthens the leg, back, abdominal, and lateral muscles of the body.
This material was originally published in : yoga journal
Donna has been the asana columnist for both Yoga Journal and Yoga International Magazine (U.S.A.), and has been profiled in four separate publications on exceptional contemporary teachers of our time, including Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga. Donna is the author of the contemporary classics, The Breathing Book, Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness and Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living. Her fourth book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship is used as a curricular text in teacher training programs worldwide. American Born, Donna now resides in Christchurch, New Zealand where she pursues her passionate love of horses.
These articles appear on this website by permission of Donna Farhi and are all copyrighted materials.
One Woman's Yoga
Moving Inside the Breath
The Window In / Following the Breath
Moving Outside the Square / The Sun Salutation
Flexibility & Focus / The Arm Balance Sequence
Coming to Stillness / Janu Shirsasana / Head-to Knee Pose
Supta Padangusthasana / Reclining Big Toe Pose
Virabhadrasana II / Warrior 2
Sirsasana II / Headstand 2
Salabhasana / Locust
Ardha Chandrasana / Half Moon
Finding your Inner Compass / Parsvottanasana / Flank Pose
Yoga for Enlightened Living
A Blueprint for Optimal Movement
Moving with the Breath
more to follow...
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