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Ask Abbie

Beginning Your Practice in Pigeon Pose: Establish Your Ground of Being

          Many yoga students are appalled when asked to start a yoga class in a pigeon pose. Some have been taught that before setting up any pose, one should "warm up" with 108 chatarungas, sun salutations or with a good stretch. At Katonah Yoga we work in the bones and joints, the structure, and the best way to warm them up is to fold.  A pigeon establishes one's ground of being.
           One's ground of being starts from ground zero; the perineum making contact, plugging in and finding the ground. Your legs are the pillars of your perineum. Think of the right foot as the male root, the left foot as the female root so that your perineum is like the third foot which is you; the integration of your male and female aspects, your personal ground.


            The perineum for women is located between the pubis and anus - it's the opening of the vagina. The perineum for men is between the coccyx and the genitals. The lower body, one's pelvis, is your stability. It's like the foundation of a building, or the root of a plant; it sets up a pattern that all future growth follows. It is by making contact, perineum on a surface, that you substantiate yourself.
           If you were a radio, you would ground your wires in order to move your current (energy) through, plugging it in (lower body) before using the dial (the upper body) or setting up the antenna (your head). You wouldn't build the penthouse without building the foundation first. By establishing a ground, descending into the depths becomes a  requirement for ascending to ones heights. So why try to turn the radio on before plugging it in?
             Grounding the lower body in a pigeon pose allows us to orient ourselves in time and space. Like a clock, if the perineum is the center, the pubis is 12:00, the coccyx is 6:00, the right hip is 3:00 and the left hip is 9:00. By orienting our lower bodies within a wide circumference, we can find weightlessness in our upper bodies; which is how we get the yummies out of the pose.
              A pigeon struts around in a backbend, a body lifting off and taking flight. A backbend is the pubis, navel and sternum coming forward and up. Consider the front body is one's potential while the back body is the past. In order to move forward in life, to take flight, one sets up their memories (the back) to support the future (the front). One does not change themselves by manipulating the past, or by bending back. It is the front body substantiated by the lower body, where one begins to come forward into the future

           Therapeutic and spiritual work is often counterintuitive. If we knew how to change ourselves, how to have full lungs, a voluminous heart and liver that filters, we would have done it already and we'd all be well adjusted and we wouldn't need yoga. But real transformation comes from knowing your own blind spots, opening up a field of awareness that is unknown to you and making choices that contradict your habits. In this way you, the student, become the person who benefits from the poses rather than the poses conforming to whatever already suits you.
             By conforming to the formal practice, the student gains an awareness of the personal propensities that keep him or her from living consciously. Thus to start a practice in a pigeon we emulate this bottom feeding bird by substantiating our roots, which enables us to embody their avian nature in order to rise above ourselves so that eventually we can all dwell in the field of the imagination, which is the purpose of it all.




Have you always been able to do a lotus?


When I started my yoga practice years ago, I lusted after the lotus pose, convinced that the man I was dating would fall in love with me. So impressed, he might even pay attention to me and listen to my deep thoughts about life. As I toiled - as I do - I glanced over (a lot) at my then-boyfriend and saw how effortlessly he slid into the pose, closing his eyes and disappearing into his own reveries, lost to me. 
He introduced me to all things spiritual, poetic, and esoteric. I was his student, eager for wisdom, insight, and affection. My pursuit of this apparently elevated being's affection fueled my efforts to shove myself into lotus. Instead of leaving me in the throes of knee pain, I would one day join him in his depths and share his experience of enlightenment. 

Lotus would deliver me, and make me a legit yogi instead of a homesick college freshman calling home eight days a week.

Alone in my dorm room, I stuffed myself into the pose. I then greased my arms with Vaseline and rammed them through the stubborn gap between my legs, proving I could have perfect posture and be free of diseases. What more could anyone ask of me?
I spent every night mastering this feat. One day on the way to weekly yoga class he introduced me to macrobiotic food, explaining that it was a must if I were going to be with him. I wanted to crave soba noodles and have my skin turn grey from this macro diet just like all the skinny girls in class. 
One weekend, we went to Kripalu for chanting with the Hari Krishnas. I cringed when he couldn't carry a tune, and he embarrassed me by singing louder than everyone else. I come from a family of great singers and good manners; I would be mortified if I sounded like that, but in that moment nothing commanded my attention more than the urgent spiritual work I had to do. I had no idea that the lotus, while worth aspiring to, comes as a result of the achievement of many other postures. All I wanted was to perform my new stunt. But alas, my hopeful audience of one was swallowed whole by the sitar music, and I lost track of him altogether after the first half hour when he'd sidled up to the guru, leaving me in the back with all the other losers, the ones without the right outfit, Sanskrit name, or shaved head. So there I was, going after a lotus for which I had no map and after a man who I pursued with an equally misguided technique. 
Hours later, I ended up not where I had hoped to be, showing off my lotus to Mr. Macrobiotic, but on a grassy slope near his car so he wouldn't leave without me. And as I sat and waited I had nothing to do but take full measure of this man, The Hari Krishnas, myself, and my greasy lotus. We drove home in silence and the following week he dumped me for a waitress at the Broome Street Bar. So she got him but I got my Lotus. 

40 years later I sent my nephew Julian to share Passover with old friends. He reported to me afterwards that he met a man there who captivated him all night. When I hounded Julian for details, he reported that Mr. Macro was fat, twice divorced, and complained to him about his sciatica. If only he still had his lotus.

As much as my lotus ordeal humiliated me and left me hankering for its nectar, it launched my young self on a path to developing an inner life. And as I am prone to beat a dead horse, I stayed with the lotus, even though I didn't have the twelve other poses that should be mastered before it. I had no technique to make my lotus possible. So instead of hog-tying myself, per usual, I began to read Freud, EF Schummacher, and Rob Pirsig, and was soon comforted by the Buddhists, the Hindus, and the Egyptians, who corroborated my need for a solid lotus. These ancients considered the lotus flower a representation of our longing for spiritual enlightenment. 
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is said to include spells that are able to transform a person into a lotus, thus allowing for resurrection and personal renewal. As myths hold truth, this mythic idea beckoned me. When my hips gave way, and I solidly felt the seat underneath me, this manifested my own renewal. I felt that I had become the lotus. 
The Hindus describe the flower that emerges out of muddy waters, un-spoilt and pure each morning, as the emblem of possibility for personal transformation. But as students who are developing technique we want to embody it, become it, not just represent it. Of all the yoga postures, the lotus demands the most rigorous technique. 
And just like every other archetype, it is ours to embody if we come to class, stay on the mat, participate, measure up, develop good boundaries, and fight the depth of our unconscious propensities. It's a life's work. 
The reason we modern practitioners want to embody the archetype of a lotus, is that we are using our bodies as a conduit to change our lives. The value of a lotus pose is to guarantee that we won't unravel. And as it is my propensity to harp, if your body doesn't unravel, neither will you.
When a lotus is measured well, the legs are folded so that they are bound with a central bolt. Your hips, knees, and ankles are cross-referenced so that your pelvis is tied together. Much like a pair of shoelaces, criss-crossed to tie a good knot so that your shoes won't fall off, a lotus bind ties up your pelvis so your hips don't come apart. 

Lotus provides a way to tone up your kidneys by building the pelvic floor. A lotus will hold you together. It adds fluency to the hips, demanding a form that flushes energy through ankles, knees, and hip joints, much like a closed electrical circuit functions. And, while at first one fights for the proper form of the bind, the real benefit is the flow, the energy, the currency that moves through your body all bound up. Real freedom is found in confinement. A good lotus will help you address your metabolism (thyroid), flush your toilets (kidneys), adjust your vision (liver), open your windows (lungs), and refine your speech (heart). 
A pose like lotus is difficult at first ("at first" could mean years) because it demands a certain amount of pliancy in the joints and a measured process of origami pleating in order to fold one's legs in that pretzel-like bind, instead of stuffing yourself in and mistaking a squish for a good fit. Once we've slid in, the lotus makes other poses easier. A headstand or shoulder stand with legs in lotus gives those poses with no folds a surge of power. A cobra with legs in lotus opens the front of your pelvis, yielding a richer backbend and a fuller arch from intestines to lungs. A twist sets up a double helix, flushing kidneys much like squeezing a sponge. In a lotus, the same twist sets up a curve that is exponentially delicious.

And not to worry if you don't have your lotus yet. If you are sitting at a right angle, on your perineum, in your hip joints, in the center of your sphere, you will never need Vaseline.

Why do we lie back on blocks or thread ourselves through a chair before class?

  Before class we encourage our students to use chairs and blocks for back bend  variations in  order to set up conditions for taking pressure off of one's lower back, opening up ones lungs and setting up a vision that  supports neurology, thereby attaining a backbend without one's usual effort or one's personal propensities. The blocks act as scaffolding to one's structure rather than asking students to come in and stretch themselves.  O ur supported backbends   are part of ones effort to tune one's instrument, open up the valves, adjust one's strings, make sure you are not flat or sharp, in preparation to use oneself as a participant in an orchestra.   Tuning the instrument allows one to participate in one's own well-being, resulting in an orientation of center and circumference.  This alerts our senses to what is deep within and directly without.  With proper boundaries,   disorder is organized, corners meet, strings have proper string tension so that when you play, the music is harmonious.  
           When we come to class we come to participate in community. We're asked to shed our first nature -- unconscious, habitual patterns which, as individuals, we unthinkingly identify with - and conform instead, to something counter-intuitive, foreign, and outside our frame of reference. What we call the "personal" is an elaborate intuition programmed after years of reacting to this capricious, exciting world. It's the way the body has come to operate on auto-pilot, sitting cross-legged on one butt, standing on one leg, favoring one direction, walking bow-legged, knocked kneed, slouching the shoulders, cocking one's head, etc...The act of measuring up in class, engaging our sheer awareness, working consciously, is the moment we engage our second nature, our most alert and conscious state. We can observe and process what is otherwise automatic and unnoticed. We learn techniques through asana, a highly conscious practice, to help us override the habitual first nature and become stable, competent, and imaginative. The use of props serve as formal boundaries rather than personal effort. 
            To reform one's first nature is to agitate and disturb this delicate status quo. It can be demanding and even painful.   Many of us navigate life as warriors, doers, achievers, perfectionists. Supported poses afford a moment of peace, engaging in the art of being rather than doing. Scaffolding with blocks, chairs, or poles allows one to let go of one's unconscious investment in habit and instead provide a supportive way to inform the body. One's structure is supported  for a determined length of time so that bodily fluids and  circuitry can move more freely through our bones, organs, and glands, thus facilitating the body's flow of internal energy.
Winter Becomes Spring: Back-bending Out of The Past
             A natural part of  life is that our bodies degrade over time. As we get older, our back starts to creep over the front, our vision blurs, our bones thin. One's future shortens, while the past only grows, and our sense of moving forward steadily dims. As we age we progressively lose touch with the exterior, while our interior life becomes richer.  Embedded in our greater journey is a repeated cycle of growth and decay that aligns with the four seasons. During Winter, we burrow for warmth, we consume heavy, heat-producing foods, and we open up our bodies with much less frequency and fervor. The liver bears a heavy load as the purveyor of our internal cleanliness.
Backbends help flush the liver and clean it. As we enter Spring, supported poses help rejuvenate the organs , taking pressure off where we habitually sit in our backs and setting up the structure so that the lungs and liver open up in the front. Supported backbends offer an opportunity to orient ourselves on a spit, a plumb line, a tai chi, setting up a center in order not to get lost in time and space. Biochemically, we are shifting the terrain, after crawling into ourselves during winter, tilling the soil, as it were, from where a sprout can grow.  
        The back is meant to support potential rather than diminish it. Supported backbends help establish one's stability (lower body) and open one's front body (torso), while setting up a vision (head). Boundaries(props) diminish the effort and muscle required for good form. Binding the legs as well, create a closed circuit flushing the hips, knees and ankles . A backbend takes considerable effort and is usually the pinnacle of any sequence.  When the front is opened fully, the articulation of the arches are fully expressed. Consequently the lungs are ventilated and pressure is taken off the kidneys. 
         A block under ones lower back takes the pressure off the roots by elevating the pelvis so that the front body(potential) becomes available. Elevating one's lower body takes pressure off the bottom by oxygenating the pelvis, flushing the liver, engaging the lungs by opening them in the front, making it easier on the heart (by giving it more space), and creating a cross breeze in the body.
Blocks under upper back:  Sitting in baddha  konasana and laying back on four  blocks supports the back, taking pressure off of the kidneys, sending the lungs to the front of the body and supporting the neck to free up the vision.  The neck becomes a funnel from the lungs into the thyroid and up to the antenna. The thyroid governs the ability to self-express, to ventilate well and to regulate our chemistry.
Blocks under lower back (supported bridge):  Lie on your back, lift the pelvis with a block vertically underneath the sacrum, as though  jacking up the rear end of the car. In this way, you can pump up the back tires (kidneys) with air, taking pressure off the lower back, opening up the front of the pelvis and feeding breath to the kidneys. This calms down the adrenals. Positioning the knees and ankles at right angles substantiates the hips. The front of the thighs (bottom window) is where the backbend is initiated.
Supported fish:  Sit in virasana with a block under the shoulder blad es (just  above bra line). Ideally, the crown touches the floor allowing the pineal gland to make light contact. The pineal gland is like a homing device.

Supported supta virasana: Place the legs through a chair laying back on the seat while holding the feet. The backbend creates a closed circuit of energy throughout the form. This allows the nervous system to calm down, the liver to stretch, the lungs to open and the eyes to flush. Thereby  

glands are restored, reset, and renewed.


Supported backbends help facilitate a good nervous system. The above series of backbends restore energy by refueling our internal reserves of current.  The imagination is used to set up a stable structure so that breath can move through it.  This sequence unites the mind, the body and the breath in preparation to participate in a conscious practice.

Why do we cross our legs in the Katonah Yoga sun salutations?

 We teach our students to consciously organize the four corners of the torso -- two shoulders, two hips -- in right angles to scaffold a robust structure for the body. Organs need space to function, as their work is mostly mechanical, 
 reliant largely on pumps and piping and itinerant fluids; 
 likewise, the health of a joint depends on whether the 
 pendulum is swinging straight. When structure is framed according to measure, the body's natural organization is realized and the interior enjoys greater function. One's work in yoga is to set up conditions that situate these components without pulling, yanking or compromising, in a frame that holds.   


   But a simple frame, under fire from life's disquiet is inadequate. Life is not polar, it is dimensional. Life is not linear, it is interconnected. Parallel lines end up separating, not

holding up, like pigtails rather than a braid. Our habits, too, often don't serve us. Posture, subconscious reflexes, the way we very literally carry ourselves are all directives from an unconscious first nature, regularly stressing the fine adjustments we implement in our practice.


           Cross-referencing is a way to situate the center of a structure such that each pillar adheres to a common design. One sets up an "X marks the spot", much like a common engineering practice used to fortify structures with cross-beams. Think of the Eiffel Tower, with all of its cross-crossing joists in its grid-like structure: while vertical studs carry the lion's share of the load, cross-beams ensure the distance between each stud is uniform and in agreement with the center. 


             So it is within a body. Cross-referencing the body's frame in a yoga pose consciously establishes a center, a second nature. It becomes a surveying tool, a technique used to connect, through one's imagination, the upper and lower body, the right and left sides of the body, and all of its possible diagonals. The result is a voluminous form that references and reconciles the center. When we cross-reference in a pose, we create a contact point in our imagination,  interconnecting and substantiating the frame -this makes our structure dynamic and self-correcting. We're creating a robust mental map of the body, and a shape to occupy with more precision, more stability, and more organization. 


             But the purpose of practicing yoga is not to perfect yoga poses. Although we set up our poses to conform to right angles, a formal practice is a means to unlocking greater fluency and stride in the organic, curvaceous, and spherical shape of  
 our bodies. Not unlike learning a foreign language, whereby studying formal grammar leads to spoken fluency,
becoming conscious of the formal space the body occupies begets a comparable fluency of imagination. By using the mind to organize the body, we exercise and stretch the imagination alongside the body, stimulating greater insight and health. The right references information on the left, the left substantiates and references the flow on the right; the up, the down; the down, the up; the shoulder, the knee; the knee, the shoulder; the right nipple, the left shoulder blade; the left nipple, the right shoulder blade; when finally, all corners are interconnected, having lots of conversations, dynamic, a cacophony of stability, all through one's imagination. As is life.


The original question referred to crossing over our legs in sun salutations. (watch our sun salutations here) Parallel legs can hold only so much stamina, so we create a "bolt" by crossing-over, substantiating the sacral plate. With so many repetitions of our sun salutations, and so much demand on the legs and lower back, crossing over is like braiding the legs, enabling one's lower body to hold up better, developing stamina and stability rather than unraveling or leaking out energy. The more connections our poses afford, and the more precise that contact is, the better we use our poses as closed circuits, making us spherical, and therefore more buoyant. 
     The Eiffel Tower's strength comes from the combined organization of each stud -- the intelligence in the structure -- not load-bearing beams. Our crossed-over legs and arms are neurological circuitry, channels for information to move through. Cross referencing creates more facility of getting around oneself, making one more spherical, less rigid; by coming around rather than just driving through, one develops more perspective, more vision, and greater dimension.  





Example of Cross-Refrencing 


In Gomukhasana one crosses over ones's legs, engaging one's hip joints so that, like a scissor, the real strength and function of the pose isn't one's legs as much as the contact point, the bolting of the hips. A scissor's functionality is not the sharp blades (legs) of the tool, but rather a function of the bolt at the center which allows the scissor to cut. In a body, this develops more pliancy in one's hips. But, in order to move currency through ones body, a fluency of imagination is required. Engaging in a pose consciously (using your imagination) ups its function. For  example, sit in gomukhasana; engage your right foot and find its cross-reference to its own buttock bone. Find your left foot and cross-reference in your mind (and body) to its own buttock bone. Take your right hand and hold your right heel, while your left hand holds the left heel. You are cross-referenced in mind and body, creating more leverage and more energy through this form. Once bound, the structure, (two shoulders, two hips) is cross-referenced, not simply framed, giving the form more dimension and better hold. With a center bolt, the stable form transforms into a richer dimensional conversation between a center and its circumference.


Why Do We Flip our Wrists?

Alex asked in utter frustration, "Why do we flip our wrists"?

It is impossible to address an organ independently from the structure around it, the bone framing it. Every component of the body functions with respect to the whole, whereby the dysfunction of one part is caused by the disrepair of another. This is the defining narrative of our practice.

We work the wrists in order to access, strengthen, and open the lungs. The wrist is a mini collarbone – whatever condition is set up in the wrist is repeated in the collarbone – and together their organization acts as a frame for the lungs.

In setting up a right angle in each wrist, palms faced down and arms straight under ones shoulders, the wrist, shoulder, and collarbone support the lungs. These right angles literally make a house for the lung. If the wrist isn't straight or the collar is skewed, the lung doesn't get enough air. When we flip our wrists, palms down, fingers facing us instead of out, we are rotating the armpit and opening up the collarbone. This taxes the wrist joint to open in a direction we don't normally demand of it, drawing attention to the relationship between the lung and what's around it, like a window and its frame.

Installed in a well-measured sill, a window can open and close to full capacity. So it is with a lung: the wrist work we do initiates a dialogue between the lungs and the bone supporting it, developing dexterity. The better the structure - wrist, collarbone, shoulder blade, rotator cuff - the better our lungs can function.

Finally, the purpose of well-functioning lungs is to fully take in and eliminate air, to hold a full capacity of breath. Our lungs are a container for holding emotions, like joy, depression, and grief, so lungs build our emotional competency. When our lungs are full, we are more dimensional, both physiologically and psychologically. Even our skin glows.

So, Alex, what better reason to flip our wrists than to more fully house the spirit?


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