The Earth Element & Summer/Fall Transition Season in Yin Yoga

One of the things I love most about Yin Yoga is its connection to the elements of nature. This comes from the special influence of Chinese Medicine upon Yin Yoga, and it helps practitioners bring nature, the environment, natural forces, and seasonal cycles into our practice.

In Chinese Medicine, energy is deliberately stimulated along the meridian lines that run throughout the body. In Yin Yoga, the theory is that we stretch the body along these same meridian lines, which produces something like a self-acupressure effect. Each of the main organ meridian pairs is connected with one of the 5 Elements: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal. In turn, each of the 5 Elements relates to one of the 5 Seasons…yes, 5 seasons!

In this system, the Earth Element has its own season outside of the four we traditionally recognize in Western culture. The giantbuddhaLate Summer/Early Fall transition is the time of Earth Element, which coincides with the peak of the harvest. You can recognize attributes of Earth Element in your environment at any time, but we bring them into greater focus during this short season of the year. These qualities include hardness and solidity; Earth Element gives structure and support. In traditional Buddhist meditations on the Elements, one would contemplate the hardness of the bones, the structure of the skeleton, the mineral quality of the teeth, etc. to experience the Earth aspects of the human body – the same Earth qualities we observe in mountains, rocks, and geological structures that shape the planet itself.

In nature, the Earth Season is a time of abundance. For us, it is a signal to slow down and take in the fruits of our labors – the results of our efforts in Spring and Summer. If you’ve read earlier posts about Spring/Wood Element and Summer/Fire Element, you know that these times of year are actively involved with initiating change and bringing plans to fruition (analogous to planting seeds and growing crops). Grounded in the strong foundation of that work, we now enjoy greater equanimity and begin to sense more self-acceptance, integration, gratitude, and contentment as we arrive at the harvest.

cattail3, croppedThe organ meridians involved with Earth Season are the Spleen (Yin) and Stomach (Yang) Meridian pair, which are related to digestion and both the physical and emotional sense of satisfaction and “enoughness.” The Spleen is also part of the immune system, and along with the Stomach, it affects how we accept or reject food and germs, as well as how we process information and emotional energy from others.

HalfKneeToChest_onBlockIn your Yin Yoga and meditation practice, you can highlight Earth Element in a variety of ways. The solidity and stability of props like blocks, bolsters, and blankets can be seen as an expression of Earth Element – the weight of sandbags can be especially grounding. In your Yin (and Yang) sessions, you can choose poses that affect the Spleen/Stomach Meridians (quadriceps, inner leg, abdomen), such as Cat Tail Pose shown above or Half Knee to Chest on a Block shown on the right, with a sandbag on the extended thigh (if appropriate for you). Grounding through the feet and legs in your standing poses, or massaging the feet can also be great ways to heighten the connection to the Earth they stand on.

I particularly like Standing Meditation and Walking Meditation for emphasizing Earth Element. As you stand (as in Mountain Pose), or move in slow walk, you can sense into your bony structure to feel Earth Element manifested in your own form. You can also soak in the calming, grounding effects of your feet touching the Earth. Check this earlier post on Earth Element for further instructions on Walking Meditation. Enjoy!

Advertisements

The Fire Element & Summer Season in Yin Yoga

I love to celebrate the changing of each season. Marking the shifts in the weather, the daylight, and the foods that are in season are all wonderful ways to reconnect with this amazing planet we inhabit.

But, I have to admit…I dread summer every year.

I am not a fan of hot temperatures (or sweating), so this time of year, I have to make a little extra effort to appreciate the cycles of nature (rather than just curse the Weather Channel forecast). When it’s hot outside, my patience is thinner, my energy is lower, and it’s hard to stay grounded in the present moment when I’m longing for the days of sweatshirts and chai tea lattes. After the 4th of July, I’m seriously ready to skip ahead to Halloween. Please.

Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things over the years about working with the Elements and Seasons from a Yin Yoga perspective, so I’ll offer some of my favorite practices for handling the sizzling energy of summer.

fire

The Season of Fire Element

First, a little background: Yin Yoga draws upon the energetic principles outlined in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The poses we practice are thought to stimulate the meridian lines that run through the body, making the practice a form of self-acupressure. The meridian lines we take into consideration in Yin Yoga are each connected with an organ in the body, and the organ meridians are divided into Yin and Yang categories. Each Yin organ meridian is paired with a Yang organ meridian that has similar qualities and effects. In addition, each meridian pair is associated with one of the Five Elements and a season of the year. In TCM, summertime is connected with the Heart/Small Intestine meridian pair and the Fire Element.

Each season has its own unique personality, bringing with it certain moods or characteristics. In the winter, rest and hibernation is instinctive, and in the spring, change is in the air, as new habits and ideas start to blossom. The summer season represents the part of the cycle where everything ripens. The heat of fire can purify or burn away old habits, “cooking” our new intentions until the transformation reaches maturity.

Fire energizes, but it also consumes, so it’s crucial to keep this energy in balance – it brings out one’s fiery intellect and passionate emotions. But, on the plus side, Fire Element also highlights our capacity for compassion, joy, and connection. The expansive energy of Fire encourages us to embrace living life to its fullest.

How do we work with these themes in a yoga practice?

According to Chinese Medicine, the Heart and Small Intestine Meridians are related to both circulation and digestion, as well as any inflammation in the body or excess heat (such as hot flashes). Anxiety, nervousness, and overstimulation can also reflect imbalance in these meridians, and in turn their symptoms include disruptions to digestion and heart rate.

Described in broad strokes, the Heart Meridian starts around the chest/armpit and runs down the inner arm, through the wrist and to the pinky finger. IMG_5600The Small Intestine Meridian – perhaps surprisingly – is also located in the upper body, running through the neck, upper back/shoulders, and down the back of the arm.

IMG_5513So, in a Yin Yoga practice, these energy lines would be primarily affected by backbends, forward bends, twists, and wrist/forearm stretches. You can choose poses that open the chest, upper back, neck, and shoulders, and the inner and outer arm from the pinky to the shoulder. Try a restful backbend on a bolster, or add wrist and shoulder stretches to Shoelace Pose (see pictures).

In general, summer can be a good time to turn down the heat and intensity of your asana practice and spend extra time with Yin Yoga and meditation, or simply opening to the emotional aspects of yoga.

Practicing Metta Meditation can be a beautiful way to cultivate the positive attributes of Fire Element – love and compassion – and to soothe your own heart. Metta (or Maitri in Sanskrit), means “loving-kindness” or goodwill, and is a traditional Buddhist meditation practice. This form of meditation is usually taught with a set of four phrases that are repeated silently – “May I/you be safe,” “May I/you be happy,” “May I/you be healthy,” “May I/you live with ease.” You are free to create your own variations of these well-wishes that resonate with you.

If you’re new to Metta Meditation, try this guided practice with Sharon Salzberg. She will guide you through the nuances of sending Metta to yourself and to others.

My good wish for you this season: indulge in some lazy summer days to rest and stay balanced. Enjoy being with friends, live life to the fullest…and stay cool!

P.S. Check out the other articles in this Elements/Seasons series! Spring & Wood Element and Late Summer & Earth Element.

Thanksgiving Yin Yoga Sequence

Norman-Rockwell-ThanksgivingThe spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said, “If you think you are enlightened, go home for Thanksgiving.”

Combine a little family button-pushing with a feast of comfort foods, stuffing, and pies, and you’ve got a recipe for holiday indulgence. Don’t get me wrong – I savor Thanksgiving dinner as much as the next person, but I try to find a balanced way to celebrate the abundance of the season.

The following Yin Yoga sequence doesn’t burn a ton of calories to get that gravy out of your system (I suggest a hike or long walk), but it can help restore you mentally, energetically, and internally. This Thanksgiving-themed practice focuses primarily on the Spleen/Stomach Meridians, with a few Liver/Gallbladder poses thrown in for good measure.

The Spleen/Stomach Meridian pair assists with physical digestion, as well as our ability to “digest” whatever happens to us mentally and emotionally. This pair is also associated with the positive attributes of abundance and enough-ness that relate to Thanksgiving, especially because of their connection to the Harvest Season/Earth Element.

The Liver/Gallbladder Meridian pair can help us de-tox, since the Liver is the body’s chemical processing center. In Chinese Medicine this also works on the emotional level, as these meridians help us process feisty feelings like anger, frustration, and resentment. It’s a good idea to give your hard-working liver some love after Thanksgiving dinner.

So, here’s a sequence you can do at home to celebrate this holiday and support yourself on all levels:

Opening Meditation: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Take a few mindful breaths to settle in, then bring your hands to lightly rest on your belly. Feel the belly rise and fall with your breath, continuing to bring awareness to this space for several minutes.

Loosing Up: 

Still on your back, take a few Windshield Wiper Twists, moving your knees gently side-to-side with your feet on the ground.

Bring one knee into the chest as you stretch the opposite leg out. Switch sides and repeat several times.

Come to sitting and practice flexing and extending the spine back and forth a few times (like a seated cat/cow), then side bend left and right a few times, moving with the rhythm of your breath.

Yin Poses:

1. Sphinx Pose – 3 minutes
Release by coming down onto your belly. Wiggle your hips side to side a few times.

sphinx2

 

 

 

 

2. Reclining Twist – 3 minutes, each side
Release by coming into a neutral position on your back and take a few knee circles in each direction.

3. Squat Pose – 2 minutes (Alternate Option: Happy Baby Pose)
Squat Pose illustration & instructions from Bernie Clark here.

4. Lateral Dragonfly – 3 minutes, each side
This is a side bend from the seated wide-legged Dragonfly position (not folding forward). The top arm can rest on your head, or can stay down by your side.

lateraldragonfly

 

 

 

 

 

5. Cat Tail Pose – 2 minutes upright in “Phase A”, 2 minutes in twist “Phase B” on each side
To release, lie on your back, stretch your arms overhead, take a big inhale and sigh (3 times)

cattail3, croppedcattail4, cropped

 

 

 

 

 

6. Bananasana – 3 minutes, each side

banana1

 

 

 

 

7. Saddle Pose – 5 minutes (Alternate Option: Dragon Lunge, 2 minutes on each side)
Release by using your arms and abs to help you sit up. Carefully unfold your legs – bend and straighten the knees a few times.

saddle5

saddle3dragon1

 

 

 

 

8. Twisted Roots – 2 minutes, each side

twistedroots2

 

 

 

 

9. Happy Baby – 3 minutes
Here’s a video from Bernie Clark on Happy Baby.

10. Savasana – Rest for a minimum of 10 minutes.

Throughout the practice session, return to the sensation of the breath at the belly. Really allow yourself to feel the movement of the breath at your center, without forcing it. Relax and enjoy!

If you need more specific instructions for any of these poses, I recommend looking them up on Bernie Clark’s YouTube Channel. He has a quick and accessible break-down available for pretty much all of the Yin poses.

Celebrating Earth Element

5element2According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are not four, but five, seasons in the year. Connected with the Five Elements, these five seasons are Fall (Metal Element), Winter (Water Element), Spring (Wood Element), Summer (Fire Element), and Late Summer/Early Fall (Earth Element).

I like to refer to this Late Summer/Early Fall season as Harvest Season, since it is all about the abundance of the Earth. Some people call it “Indian Summer.” This is the peak of the growing season for most places (in our hemisphere), and a great time to reconnect with the energies of Earth Element – contentment, abundance, steadiness.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the inspirations that the Yin Yoga practice draws upon, so it’s nice to celebrate the seasons and elements through a yoga practice. In this case, that might be a Yin sequence focused on the Stomach/Spleen Meridians, since they are most connected to the Harvest Season and Earth Element.

Another great way to partake of Earth Element energy is to practice Walking Meditation. Give this a try sometime soon, ideally letting your bare feet touch the Earth directly, as you walk in a shady, grassy spot.

feetingrassWalking meditation is a little different than just taking a walk, mainly because we are not trying to get anywhere! We are just calming the mind by tuning into the body’s slow, rhythmic movements in simple walking. Pace up and down a short pathway (maybe 20-30 feet long), turning around and coming back each time you get to the end of your path. Move slowly. Feel each part of the motion, sensitively present to the feet lifting off the ground and touching it once again. Enjoy the sun, the breeze, the sounds of nature. But, just let those sensory experiences come to you naturally, while allowing your attention to rest in the feeling of slowly stepping along your path.

Over time, as you continue to practice, you might start to notice you are “harvesting” some positive qualities like contentment. The practice of walking without trying to get anywhere is a wonderful incubator for contentment. Eventually, it dawns on us that contentment arises out of the small, ordinary things – what you might call the neutral experiences – not from the high points, thrilling as they may be. We work so hard for those high points, and we tend to assume that contentment is the reward for some form of success: I’ll be content once I get this, accomplish that, or arrive there.

But, fortunately, contentment is not the medal given to finishers at the end of the race. It’s the wind blowing through our hair as we walk, jog, or run along that road. It’s the support of the Earth beneath our feet.