Lesson 8: Using Props in Asana Practice

Lesson 10:
Using Props in Asana Practice


Having explored the fundamental movement patterns that underlie the asanas, and seen some of the ways to use props for support in restorative poses, we can now look at how props can utilize one of the basic principles of physics, leverage. There are many ways we use yoga postures to enhance perception and sensitivity to energy, and using props to highlight keys places of leverage and balance is one of B.K. S. Iyengar’s greatest gifts to the modern yogi. The Iyengar system has spawned an amazing number of ways to use props to improve leverage, awaken a deeper sense of space in the poses, and open and integrate the chakra energies. We will explore a few possibilities.

Because of the long bones of the limbs and the action of the joints, the human body is an amazing place to explore leverage and the role of fulcrums in creating a sense of balance Unknownand ease, of sthira and sukham. This class of leverage is the see-saw action we use in opening Unknown-1the hip joints. When we grow a tail, and use the inner back heel as a continuation of tail energy, the center of the front leg hip socket is the fulcrum around which the pelvis can rotate images-8freely, and also a center around which the body can find the stillness of perfect balance. The leverage of the back leg/tail counter-balancing the torso is most clearly seen in half moon pose, especially when  you compare Iyengar to the class 1 level picture. The same principle applies to trikonasana and the other standing poses.

The use of belts allow us to further enhance the connection of the back leg/tail and front hip joint in the main hip opening postures such as parvsvottanasana, here demonstrated by Iyengar teacher Roni Brissette, images and supta padangusthasana. Note the second belt in supta padangusthasana from the upper hip to the lower foot. A more precise placement of the belt would have it around the metatarsal bones, especially the big toe of that lower leg. That gives you the ability to adjust inner and outer rotations.images-1 Most beginners use only the upper leg belt and never quite get into the hip joint. The same action can be taken into ardha chandrasana and revolved ardha chandrasana.

Another old favorite, done with belts or wall ropes is the hanging dog pose. images-16Here the rope loop acts as an accessory tail, teaching the muladhara to trifurcate, giving a strong traction to the hip sockets and tops of the thigh bones. When the hips are open, Unknown-1the leverage releases the spinal column. Speaking of belts and tails, here is a great photo from Lauren Cahn in the upside down downward dog, or urdhva dhanurasana. Notice the action and direction of the pull of the belt. The tail lengthens out dynamically. The tendency is to confuse the tail and the hips and overly contract the muladhara. The use of blocks takes some of the effort from the shoulders.

Once the hips and tail are awake and the energy is flowing freely, (1st chakra) we can look to opening the sacroilliac joints, a key, butUnknown-3 challenging action. Here we switch to a wooden block, or brick as they say in Pune. Iyengar instructor Holly Walck is demonstrating the use of a block in bridge pose to open the core. The release the sacrum the fulcrum shifts from the hip joints to the sacro-illiacs. The feet stay engaged, the pelvis is anchored to the block, and the tail can adjust up or down to find the happy spot for the sacrum. In this photo, the student needs to release the throat as the fifth chakra is compressing. More height under the shoulders and a slight rotation of the skull will align 5th and sixth chakras with the sacral area or the 2nd chakra. images-3

For those looking for a deeper experience, check this out. Here Iyengar is using a stool with blankets to open his sacral-lumbar region and the heart, the wall to activate his feel and muladhara, and another stool to anchor his hands (notice the length through his wrists, elbows and armpits.) He has been exploring these deep supported backbends for years, as this is his (and the human’s) edge.

Unknown-1Leveraging the different vertebrae of the spinal column can also be done with chairs. These poses are quite intense and care must be taken not to hang out or hold on, but to use the chair to direct perception and place the fulcrum at the exact place along the spine where you can find balance. Iyengar teacher, Kisa Davison, at left in viparita dandasana, is demonstrating the classical Iyengar chair backbend. Her head is supported, legs dynamic, but there is some compression at T-12 as seen by the sharp angle between the bottom of the ribs and the abdomen. The seat of the chair (the fulcrum) would be better located either lower or higher on the spine, as T-12 is very vulnerable to this hinging. If you work organically, rotating the liver would also help ease the transition between 3rd and 4th chakras.Unknown-2

Here the back of the chair is used by Noah Maze to open the 3rd chakra region. Note the hands and compare the length of the armpits to those of Mr. Iyengar, just to get used to seeing energy patterns. images-1Priscilla Polonia is using the chair and a bolster in supported camel pose (ustrasana). Feet stay active, pressing down, tail energy keeps lengthening, and the head is supported by the back of the chair. Adjust the placement and size of the bolster to fit the needs of your body.

Chairs can be utilized in standing poses to alter the leverage in the hips, such as this parsvakonasanaimages-1 by Kimberly Drye. If she were to be a bit closer to the wall, she could use it to press the edge of her foot away from the chair to deepen the action in the back leg groin. Here is another variation, from a wonderful standing pose series on sciata.org. images-2 B.K.S. Iyengar, the pioneer in yoga props uses a trestle, his own all purpose yoga toy, in trikonasana.trikon2 It is hard to see, but he has a half round block under his front foot, and both feet are wedged up against the sides of the trestle so he can press out without the fear of ending up in a split. I personally learned the depths of trikonasana working this way with the trestle we had in San Francisco. trikon1Mr. Iyengar’s forearm gives him more dynamic action through his shoulders and chest in this variation with a chair.

Unknown-3Finally, Iyengar’s chair sarvangasana, here demonstrated by Iyengar teacher Witold Fitz-Simon, uses the chair along with blankets (or a bolster) for the shoulders, and padding for the sacrum. The arms extend through to the back legs to stabilize and help adjust the shoulders so that they roll under and in towards the spine to create lift. The arms can also be outside if the shoulders are lacking in flexibility. A bolster can also be placed on the seat of the chair and the legs can then extend back into its support. Unknown-4

A simpler pose for beginners, and everybody, is viparita karani, one of the main restorative postures. Witold has the bolster near the wall so the legs are supported and a belt contains the leg energy.

Props for Support

Belts are used to help focus the energy and allow relaxation as in viparita karani shown Unknown-6above. In supta baddha konasana, the belt stabilizes the legs and pelvis together.

0To the right we see yoga teacher Cora Wen demonstrating the use of a long belt to adjust the shoulder girdle and open the front of the chest. To get here, hold the belt across your bottom shoulder blades and bring the ends under the armpits to the front. Then lift them up over the collar bones and cross them as they come behind the neck. Hold with hands and pull down.

Walls: Walls are great for both beginning and advanced level practice, if there is enough room. UnknownOn the left, the wall helps provide alignment information as well as support in revolved triangle. Below, the wall becomes a support to begin exploring the handstand. images

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Micro-Cosmic Orbit: Pt 2

Exploring and Embodying Three Dimensions

In the previous post we explored the micro-cosmic orbit as a means to refine our focal attention (samadhi) through bringing our attention to specific points along the orbit and linking these points into lines, arcs and circles. As we work more deeply this way, we may discover that we can find these points at three levels. The first is out beyond the confines of the skin, in an ‘orbit’ in the energy field around the body. The second is directly on the skin, where an acupuncturist or shiatsu practitioner would apply needles or pressure. The third is in the interior of the body along the planes of fascia interwoven through the organs, blood vessels and nerves. When we can feel all three of these levels simultaneously, we are inhabiting our spherical energy field and can begin to fully realize the possibilities of having three dimensional/spatial sensitivity, perception and consciousness.

images-5The girdle vessel (Dai Mai,) the fourth vessel we use, is a latitude line and is essential in finding our three dimensional perceptual field. This yang vessel pairs with the yin ‘thrusting vessel, the vertical center axis, creating horizontal stability, and allowing us to rotate/twist. Rotation inherently builds the third dimension of depth ( A circle has length and width. To create a sphere you add depth. ) and is the gateway to cosmic awareness as well as a more vibrant embodied presence.

Rotation drives the whole manifest universe. In our solar system, the planets spiral around milky_waythe sun. In our Milky Way galaxy, the stars, including our sun, spiral around a center (probably a giant black hole! If you can find Sagittarius in the night sky, and you will probably have to wait until next summer, look through and imagine 26,000 light years off in the distance.) The earth rotates on its own axis creating weather patterns as well as a sense of day and night.

The spinning top (one of the oldest toys known to humans, found in archeological sites all over the world) demonstrates the cosmic principle in physics we are embodying. The faster it rotates, the more stable the vertical line. When the top slows down it starts to wobble and when it stops spinning, it falls over. To keep the rotation, you need to keep feeding it with energy. The bicycle uses this same principle, flipped 90 degrees. Another aspect we explore is the radius of the horizontal circle. Rotation pushes from the center outward (yang) in what is called centrifugal force. As this is counterbalanced by theGM2434B-1 yin centripetal (center seeking) force, we can change the volume of the energy field by playing with this ‘expanding – condensing’, yang – yin relationship.

In this top, the widest circle with the most outward thrust, the purple one, is below the center of the vertical axis. Lowering the center of gravity adds even more stability, which is why we emphasize the lower dantien in our breathing, movement and meditation practice. When we discover how to work with this principle in the energy field, our twisting poses can actually help expand the body. If we work muscularly, you will feel constricting in twisting poses.

SBK_1711254-24Traditionally the ‘dai mai’ girdle vessel surrounds the body at the level of the pelvis in the lower dantien. but we can move our attention to awaken other ‘latitudes’ of the body. To begin in the feet, stand with the right foot forward, the left foot back, as if you are about to move into a standing twist (without the forward bend), but haven’t yet begun. Before you move any further, imagine a spiraling coil of energy beginning below the floor (the Antarctic Circle) and traveling up the center. Notice how this mimics the girdle vessel. Now imagine the coils widening as they rise up from the base ( moving toward the equator), as the yang energy expands outward. The girdle vessel is very yang so this is quite natural. Feel the energetic volume expanding and condensing with the breath, but slowly expanding in overall volume

To awaken the front body-yin energy field, we can take the hoop forward to fully engage the arms and shoulders. Now imagine the hoops extends through the back body, receiving the rising spiral and expanding as the action of twisting. SBK_1711254-2SBK_1711254-9Most students eventually leave half of the body behind and end up contracting rather than expanding, especially along the spine column. Imagine the center of the spinal canal opening outward in an expanding circle/spiral, melting the tissue, feeling spaciousness, transcending the limitations of structure.SBK_1711254-4 (My front foot turns out much more than average to release the inner groin. Don’t feel you have to imitate this, but find out for yourself where openness and balance meet.) The hoop is moved to the front to expand the yin/organ/front body qi field and expand the ‘wings’ of the body, but also feel the back body softening and opening. This feeling can be evoked in sitting, lying and inverted twists as well. If you do not have a hula hoop handy, you can also use a thera-ball to find the volume.SBK_1711254-8


Another key component awakened here is the Pericardium 8 point, PC-8 (or P-8) in the center of the palms. Analagous to the K-1 points on the feet, P-8 is a gateway between the inner and outer qi fields. The SBK_1711254-11Pericardium, the fascial connective tissue membrane surrounding the heart, arises embryologically from the same cells and tissues that create the diaphragm and liver. The ‘heart protector’ literally does this, on many levels. As someone with a well-armored heart, I am finding that opening and nurturing the heart protector so that is does its job with over doing it is awakening a level of sweet vulnerability that is both precious and scary.

SBK_1711254-12In acupuncture, the pericardium meridian is part of the JueYin channel and connects all the way through the femoral canal to the legs. For those of you who have been practicing ‘climbing the wall’ for the last few years, you can actually trace the whole fascial continuity of the Jue Yin. (Use imagination to fill in the blanks.) Rise up from K-1 (not the heels, even though they do rise on their own) (DFL for those of you who know Tom Myers’ ‘Anatomy Trains’ system) to P-8, passing through liver, diaphragm and pericardium.

You can also track the qi from P-8 back into the body horizontally, again using the wall.SBK_1711254-14 Using the tip of the  middle finger of your other hand (PC-9) to feel the connections, trace the qi from the the wall and P-8 into the area around the pec minor muscle and then go inside the body to the pericardiam itself, along with the liver and diaphragm. Use the breath and your imagination. Then go back and try the twistings shown above with these new perceptions.

SBK_1711254-20To continue our building of a three dimensional perceptual qi field, we can return to the thera-ball to provide sensation and visualization. I like the feel of my third chakra having organ support, so I find placing the ball there and using a wall creates a powerful presence on the inside. Embryologically speaking, this is the extemely yin yolk sac which becomes the entire gut body. The conception vessel points on the micro-cosmic orbit are stimulated by the ball, bringing sensation and perception here. The liver comes from the yolk sac, so I can use this position to also find the Jue Yin channel we explored above. Lying SBK_1711254-19over the ball in a forward bend creates a similar feeling, with even more yielding and softening to the yang back body erector muscles. By moving the ball to the sternum, I can activate a new set of points on the conception vessel and engage the inner tissues surrounding the 4th chakra

If I want to build up my back field perception, I use the ball from behind and awaken sensation on the yang Governing Vessel.SBK_1711254-16 Here I have dropped it a bit lower to find the sacral-lumbar junction and here I can feel the possibility of both lumbar flexion and extension, from S curve to C curve and back.  The very important GV-4 Qi gong Image‘gate of vitality’ is here The inner abdominal space also opens and the front back and center plane begin to become conscious. This becomes trickier as you move upwards towards the liver. You can place the ball anywhere and feel different points coming alive. Feel their inner as well as outer presence. Back support can also help open the front. I haveSBK_1711254-17been trying to open my throat more for my sax sound and using the ball (or any elastic support) helps soften and melt tight tissue.

SBK_1711254-21Fish body support, opening some Gall Bladder Meridian points is another way to use the ball. I am using the wall, but this can be done on the floor as well, with slightly different effects. All of these ways of playing with the three dimensional field are ways of awakening and establishing a dynamic energetic field, centered in your heart, and radiating out throughout the whole of the cosmos. When you are out in Nature, feel this. When you are out and about in the human sphere, feel how you respond. It is fascinating to see what happens.

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