Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Dog

For any yoga practice to be both sustainable and beneficial in the long haul, it needs to do a few things. Physiologically, one of the most important things is to work the abdomen and lower spine.

Many spiritual traditions focus on this area of the body for its contemplative and physical benefits, (the "hara" in Zen and martial arts, for example) and even beyond that is the proof of practice. By keeping the abdominal organs healthy and the lower spine supple, this focus takes care of a large percentage of the health needs of the body.

I'm totally biased, but the vinyasa movements of Ashtanga address this incredibly well. Chaturanga contracts and strengthens the abdomen and lower back; Up Dog stretches the muscles and tissues of the abdomen while extending the back; Downdog compresses and then releases the abdomen. These movements are paired with complementary diaphragmatic movements that augment the expansion/contraction rhythm.

While most of us are focusing on whatever posture/movement is at the forefront of the practice—Marichi D, Kapo, Dwi Pada, or whatever— these fundamental elements are taking care of so many of the background systems that operate below awareness. You may be working on getting the leg behind the head, but in the meantime digestive, lymphatic, immune, sleep, and many more systems benefit from the vinyasa "glue" that holds all the postures together.

In many ways, the Ashtanga system is Chaturanga/Updog/Downdog or Exhale/Inhale/Exhale or Contraction/Expansion/Release interspersed with periodic breaks…you know, those other postures. These movements alone have great, deep benefits.

The dog posture sequence begins the Ashtanga system in Surya Namaskara and holds it together throughout the seated sequences. The elements of that therapeutic loop appear again in what could be considered the peak of the Ashtanga system: tic-tacs. Relative to the abdomen and lower spine, Downdog/Handstand/Urdhva Dhanurasana is a slight reshuffle of Chaturanga/Updog/Downdog elements, but inverted and with far more depth and intensity.

Personally, I keep coming back to this part of the body and of the practice. Beginners are mentally and physically distant, with attention (at best) in the arms and legs. They feel the work of the arms in Sun Salutes and the pull on the calves and hamstrings in Downdog.

But with practice the awareness moves steadily deeper and becomes centered around and finally through the midsection. An advanced practitioner well knows the feeling of a deep seated forward bend releasing the belly back and back and back until it seems to disappear into the spine, or the residue that remains after deep back bending: a light, liquid energy that seems to hover and flow all the way through the belly and back.

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