This is a post I wrote for Yoga To You PDX, a wonderful Yoga School in Portland, Oregon. My heartfelt gratitude to the owner and fellow yogi Lauren Fields for allowing me the opportunity to share some thoughts on this subject.
This is an improvisation based on Yoga Synergy’s Spinal Sequence and a bit of Haitian Yanvalou dance which I had the fortune to learn a distilled version as part of Grotowski’s acting training. Music courtesy: Kai Engel
This is an improvisation on Yoga Synergy’s Nerve Tensioning Exercise. Nerve Tensioning is a set of five positions that aims to tension the brachial nervous plexus. These positions are primarily done by internally or externally rotating the shoulders and wrists. Since shoulder movement creates associate movement in the spine, it is possible to “reverse the engineering” as Simon Borg-Olivier calls it and initiate the movement from the core thus appear in a series of forward and backward bendings, the shoulder and arm movement, in turn, becomes “associated”. The original five positions become less visible and are replaced by a figure “8” described by the arms.
This is Yoga Synergy’s trademark exercise: Spinal Movement, as taught by Simon Borg-Olivier in 2018. Spinal movement is the foundation for Yoga Synergy style of practice. It consists of seven movements that mobilize the spine in seven directions: lengthening, flexing, extending, lateral extending right and left sides, axial rotation to the right and left sides.
It is interesting to point out that these movements rarely happen in our daily life because most of our “spinal movement” is combined with shoulders or(and) hips through associated movement, or a combined spinal movement involving more than one direction at a time (ie. flexion with lateral extension, axial rotation with extension etc). More information about the benefit of spinal movement can be found in my earlier post: “Why Spinal Movement?” https://artanvaya.com/2019/02/15/why-spinal-movements/
This moment is the best the world can give: The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem. – Edna St. Vincent Millay
Physical exercise ranging from gym workout to sports and yoga practice, all place the body under a physical condition where the sympathetic nervous system is switched on to fight-and- flight mode.
Patanjali, the author of Yoga Sutra describes the attainment of asana practice in sutra 2-48 “From this(the asana practice), one is not afflicted by the dualities of the opposites”. In physical yoga practice, such opposites can be understood as tension and relaxation, or firmness and calmness. Simon Borg-Olivier, one of the founders of Yoga Synergy often speaks about too much tension prevents the circulation of energy and information. And tension is a sign of mental attachment, and with persistent tension one eventually breaks, either mentally or physically. On the other hand, when one is too relaxed, one loses sight of one’s purpose, drifting in the stream of external occasions and accidents, and internally one is at the mercy of the fluctuation of the mind. To put it simply, too much relaxation makes the mind dull, and such stagnancy also hinders circulation. Yoga, from one point of view, is a process of balancing and rebalancing, as Patanjali defines asana as a posture that is firm but calm “sthiram sukham asanam”. It indicates a coexistence of two opposites, or Yin and Yang. Yin Yoga, although has many shortcoming to be considered a complete practice, is valuable in our modern age where things are simply rushed through. During Yin yoga practice one is given much more time to bring the body to a posture, and the amount of stress and relaxation is closely monitored and adjusted through out in order to maintain a relative balance. In addition, in Yin yoga one not only learns to bring relaxation while experiencing stress, one also learns to accept and live with this stress. Just like a grain of sand that was caught in the oyster eventually forms a pearl, with right amount of stress(provided one is not consumed by it), the moment is deepened and one’s state of consciousness is transformed.
As heavenly bodies maintain vigor through perpetual movements, so does a virtuous man strive unceasingly for self-perfection!
– I Ching
Bhagavad Gita has some of the best discourses on the merit of action as a manifestation of higher principles. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna said:
Perform necessary action;
it is more powerful than inaction;
without action you even fail
to sustain your own body. 2-8
Action imprisons the world
unless it is done as sacrifice;
freed from attachment, Arjuna,
perform action as sacrifice! 2-9
In the three worlds,
there is nothing I must do,
nothing unattainable to be attained,
yet I engage in action. 2-22
All living beings from plants to animals to humans engage in action simply to survive, yet there is more to action than merely “earning one’s living”, for action brings us more aligned with the higher laws. The perpetuate movements of our heart
This quotation from I Ching is China’s answer to the teaching of Krishna.
Literally, pranayama means the “expansion of life force”.
In practice, pranayama is a bridge between physical and mental, outer and inner, visible and invisible, unconscious and conscious. A complicated and precise practice, Pranayama should be learned from a teacher rather than from a book.
At Anvaya Yoga, the study of pranayama begins with the awareness of one’s own breath and the restoring of one’s natural breathing.
There are two types of breathing exercises: ones that result in hypoventilation (breathe less than normal) and ones that result in hyperventilation (breathe more than normal).
Strictly speaking, only when a breathing exercise results in hypoventilation can it be called pranayama, and this type of breathing exercises are characterized by prolonged inhalation or/and exhalation and in particular, breath retention, done after inhalation or/and exhalation.
Physiologically, hypoventilation increases carbon dioxide in the body, results in dilation of bronchi tubes and causes hemoglobin to release its oxygen via Bohr effect; it increases oxygenation in heart, brain, and cells, an important factor that contributes to good health.
Furthermore, hypoventilation results in a body more acidic due to the presence of increased CO2 in the form of carbonic acid. This decreased PH then triggers body’s attempt to rebalance itself with more alkalinity, characterized by the decrease of appetite or a natural craving for alkaline food such as fruits and vegetables rather than acidic forming food such as high protein and processed food.
Hypoventilation also calms the nervous system by triggering parasympathetic nervous system, which also improves digestive, reproductive functions as well as immune system. The calming effect of hypoventilation can be observed in the yogic state of meditation.
The best time to practice pranayama is in the morning before breakfast and preferably after the bowel movement.
1. What is the core?
The “core” is the area in the lower abdomen, about 1.5 inches below the navel, also known as “dantian” in China. In Chinese internal martial arts, dantian is where breathing should initiate and awareness should remain. The core also corresponds to the enteric nervous system, our “moving brain” with more neurons (4 times more) than our entire spinal cord.
2. The myth of core stability
The term “core stability” is sometimes mentioned in Pilate and Yoga classes as well as physiotherapy sessions. In practice “core stability” often translates to “navel to spine” for better protection of the lower back. Although not wrong, this instruction often results in “locking” the spine (and the core) through engaging the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation. This over tensing of abdomen not only immobilizes the spine but also the diaphragm, our main breathing muscle, causing stress, impeding digestion and the reproductive system. Simon Borg-Olivier of Yoga Synergy speaks about core stability and how it can be achieved by actively moving in and out of a posture while the abdomen remains soft to breathe.
3. Move from the Core
Initiating movements from the core not only helps us regain our natural body movement and enhance the circulation of energy and information within the body. The very idea of moving from the core indicates not only the core engagement but also the freedom of core which allows the diaphragm to work properly, this in itself is an expression of “harmonizing Yin and Yang”. It makes us stronger and more flexible without having to breathe more and increase the heart-rate, which is the main drawback of most gym-style workouts. In addition, core movements are fluid and often curvy and often form an infinity symbol “∞”, rather than zigzagging, such movements are artistically beautiful and pleasant to the eyes and with practice, it is possible to initiate any movement from the core thus establishing a system particularly useful for performing artists to move more organically, with less affectation.
4. Sthira Sukham Asanam
“Posture should be firm but calm”. This defining quote for asana (posture) from Yoga Sutra has become a moment to moment testimony of one’s yoga practice. What makes a yoga practice is not a posture that can be named in Sanskrit but whether one can stay relaxed so the fingers and toes are free to move, tummy is soft to breathe while remaining in the posture or movement. This is a “must” finishing touch even in the most challenging postures, as the tranquility of a lotus blossom is deemed a victory over the struggle to reach above the mud.
With 24 movable joints, spine is the most important part of the body to mobilize, yet it is often the stiffest part of the body for most people. A stiff spine not only causes discomfort and pain in the spine itself but also effects its adjacent joints: the shoulders and the hips. These spinal sequences not only develop suppleness in the spine, massage the intervertebral discs, promote healthy function of central nervous system, but also improve the function of heart and lungs (thoracic region) and strengthen the digestive and reproductive systems (lumber and sacrum regions). Associated movements initiated from spine also bring awareness, stability and flexibility to its neighboring shoulder and hip regions.
Anvaya is a