The Root of Movement: Use These 5 Building Blocks of Yoga to Free Your Practice
Many of us are so anxious to get to what we believe to be the pinnacle of yoga practice, i.e. the fancy-looking challenging yoga poses, that we fail to lay the groundwork for our practice, writes Iyengar Yoga teacher Charlotte Bell in this article.
However, yoga is about inner exploration, and if we don’t first ground our practice in the essential building blocks of yoga, we miss out on one of the most fundamental gifts of yoga. Charlotte offers five basic tools of movement to ground your practice and facilitate inner exploration.
In 1989, I went to Pune, India, to study with Geeta and BKS Iyengar, A group of 30-some dedicated practitioners from around the U.S. joined senior teacher Mary Dunn for a three-week intensive.
I gravitated toward a group of teachers who all stayed at the same $10 per night hotel— which I’m sure is not nearly that good of a deal these days. In the evenings, we’d gather on one of our balconies and discuss our day of classes.
A theme that kept arising in our discussions was disappointment in the absence of “advanced” poses in our asana classes. Most wanted to learn finer points of fancy poses, eschewing the basic yoga poses we were practicing.
On the other hand, I felt that if I had an understanding of Tadasana (Mountain Pose) by the end of our trip, I’d be happy. In Tadasana are the seeds of understanding all the other asanas.
5 Steps to Ground Your Yoga in the Basics, A.K.A Practicing Your Scales
I’ve played music my entire life. While I didn’t much care for practicing my scales as a child, I’ve come to appreciate that scales and arpeggios are building blocks. Becoming facile in scales and arpeggios in every key gives you the muscle memory you need to play pretty much anything with ease.
Years ago, I attended a workshop with banjoist Béla Fleck. He talked about his lifelong desire to “take off” on his instrument, to tread territory no one had previously explored. If you know his work, you know he has succeeded in this, and then some! But he also spoke about a time when he realized he needed to go back and relearn the basics. He decided to learn everything Earl Scruggs ever recorded on the five-string banjo. In learning the basics, he found that his ability to travel uncharted territory only grew.
I read a similar interview with Jerry Garcia, where he spoke about going back and learning how to read music after being an ear player. Like Fleck, he found that his ability to soar outside the lines was only enhanced by learning the basics.
We can do the same in yoga. Many of us are so anxious to get to what we believe to be the pinnacle of practice—those fancy poses—that we fail to lay the groundwork. Grounding your yoga practice in the basic tools of movement facilitates your inner explorations. Here are five steps to get you started.
1. Simplify your Yoga Practice
Simple is good. You will never see a ballet dancer scoffing at taking a basic class, because any professional dancer knows that the possibilities for refinement of movement are literally limitless.
It is the same in yoga. At least some of the time, explore ‘simple’ yoga poses such as Tadasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Sukhasana (Easy Pose), Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose), Talasana (Palm Tree Pose) and Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose). There are many others, of course, including all the wide-legged standing poses. These are just a few suggestions. In these basic yoga poses you can explore the finer points of practice than in poses that require complicated combinations of movements.
2. Don’t Push Up Against Your Edge
When you are constantly pushing up against your edge, sensations are so intense that you can’t feel anything subtle. Instead, practice about 5 to 10 percent inside your edge. This allows you to feel more subtle sensations and make finer adjustments. If you want to refine your practice with intelligence, you need to be in touch with subtlety.
3. Take Your Time with each Asana
Spend a minute or so in each yoga pose, letting your breath lead you into your asana, rather than listening to your ego’s call to push further on.
4. Give Your Breath Primacy
If you can’t breathe easily in a pose, you are pushing too hard. Find where the breath is restricted—is it in your lower belly, upper chest or midsection? Then back off a bit so that the breath is free. Breathing is always more important than performing.
5. Set Your Foundation
In every pose, something will be in contact with the ground—unless, of course, you’re levitating, but that’s for another post.
Whether you’re standing, sitting, kneeling or lying down, start with a solid foundation. Feel how your base is contacting the ground. Is one side grounding while the other side is lifting? Are you collapsing into the ground, or are you propping yourself away from it? Experiment with “active yield.”
In the years since that trip to Pune, I’ve studied with lots of Iyengar teachers, and with a few who have an Iyengar foundation, but have struck out on their own paths. Donna Farhi is one of the latter, and her emphasis on grounding your yoga practice in the basics—read her “Seven Moving Principles” in her book, Yoga Mind, Body, Spirit—brought me back to the roots of movement. Practicing my yogic scales, through Donna’s guidance, has helped me practice with greater ease. Grounding in the basics, every day, has set my practice free.
Study with YogaUOnline and Donna Farhi – Anatomy of a Centered Body: Getting to the Source of Structural Imbalance in the Core Body-the Psoas.
Garudhasana: How To Spread Your Wings – A Yoga Pose Primer from Contributor, Charlotte Bell and YogaUOnline.
This article was previously published on Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog. Reprinted with permission.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.