Thursday, 6 February 2014

Extending and expanding from the center

At the weekend, I went on a retreat on a small farm in the country. The house is on a river, surrounded by trees, and it looked very beautiful in the snow, nature at its quietest. The retreat focussed on going back to basics; we learnt how to milk the goats, and then we drank the milk and made cheese; we watched yarn being spun, and we learnt to knit; we made soap to wash with, and ghee to cook with. We did these things together and with a sense of wonder. I found first-hand that seeing the origins of things can be the most simple and, at the same time, the most miraculous thing—and this in turn took me back to my own center.

This journey of curious looking, going from inner to outer and back again, put me in mind of Mr. Iyengar’s book, Light on Life—specifically Chapter 2, Stability: The Physical Body (Asana). This great yoga master begins the chapter talking about physical awareness in our yoga practice and the way in which “every pore of the skin has to become an eye”—the way we see and comprehend physically. He goes on to talk about what he calls dynamic extension. He says, “Extension is attention, and expansion is awareness,” which sounds simple but takes a bit of thinking. He says, “Extension and expansion always stay rooted firmly in one’s center. They originate in the core of one’s being.” Then he gives a lovely example: “When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point that they are trying to reach, but they forget to extend and expand from where they are. When you extend and expand, you are not only stretching to, you are also stretching from.” I suggest you try following his next instruction, now: “Try holding out your arm at your side and stretch it. Did your whole chest move with it? Now try to stay centered and extend out your arm to your fingertips. Did you notice the difference?” 

“Overstretching occurs when one loses contact with one’s center, one’s divine core,” says Mr. Iyengar, in a truism that works equally well both on and off the mat. “Instead, the ego wants simply to stretch further, to reach the floor, regardless of its ability, rather than extending gradually from the center.” In other words, we want to get there! We want to get there so badly that we quite lose focus on where we actually are, right now, maybe even disowning our current self, which is so far from where we’ve decided we need to be. Instead, I invite you today to meet yourself where you are—and take it from there.

“Each movement must be an art,” advises Mr. Iyengar. “It is an art in which the Self is the only spectator. Keep your attention internal, not external, not worrying on what others see, but what the Self sees.” So what will you see today? It’s exciting when you look at it that way. You get to start right where you are, somewhere you’ve never been before, and use fresh information to see where you extend and expand to—with this deep knowledge and love for where you’re coming from.

[Class sequence includes careful slowed-down sun salutations and lunge twists with attention on each extremity; standing side-stretch; Warrior 1 with the kind of alignment that brings the pose alive so you can feel the energy moving up; Warrior 2, shoulders over hips, strong awareness of center and Shushuna Nadi central channel, and from there extending the arms and opening the chest; Parsvokonasana, grounding down to reach up and full stretch; Trikonasana; Salabhasana, working on lengthening and expanding from the core and shooting energy back through feet and crown; Dhanurasana; supine twist; Janu Sirsasana, attention to rooting and sending the heart forward, reaching through head, forward through big toe, back through little toe, refining awareness); opening the hip and reaching back to find space (“stargazer”), then reaching forward for Parvritta Janu Sirsasana, noticing the difference energetically between just grabbing the foot, or instead lifting and reaching up and revolving the torso—referring back to Mr. Iyengar; Badakonasana; Savasana.]

Lying on one side after Savasana, we can think of those things we’re grateful for, and let that hum up and down the central channel and spine.

Coming to sit, we may notice spaciousness in the body and mind. In stretching from the core, we notice that we are vast; the small self becomes tiny, and then yoga, “union”, can happen.