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!

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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.

What makes a yoga practice “mindful”?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while (thus the existence of my blog), but especially since I came back from the first 10-day retreat in the year-long Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center last fall. The purpose of this program is to weave together the distinct, yet related, contemplative traditions of Yoga and Buddhist Insight Meditation into a powerful integrated practice. And, it does feel pretty different from most mainstream yoga classes.

You might ask: “Isn’t all yoga mindful?” And I get where you’re coming from.

Yes – all yoga has the potential to be mindful. In fact, all activities have the potential to be mindful activities. (Which is kind of the point of practicing mindful yoga and meditating, right? They are like the dress rehearsal for our other activities so that it becomes second nature to take what we’re practicing out into the world.)

Then why do we need this label “mindful yoga” to distinguish one approach to practice from others – are we implying that everyone else is doing “un-mindful yoga”? (Hopefully not.) But, just because something is called “yoga” doesn’t automatically guarantee that it’s helping us grow in our capacity to live mindfully.

mat&cushionWhat I mean when I describe a yoga practice as “Mindfulness Yoga” is that we are making mindfulness the centerpiece and focus of the yoga practice. Different types of yoga emphasize different aspects – some focus on tuning up the health of the body, or improving one’s fitness, and others are primarily concerned with reducing stress. In each of these, mindfulness is still there, but it may be more of a background feature.

In Mindfulness Yoga, we do the physical asana practice in a way that brings the development of mindfulness to the foreground. Our practice also serves to prepare the practitioner – in body, mind, heart, and energy – for formal meditation. So, ideally, in a Mindfulness Yoga practice you would build up to, and devote significant time, to seated meditation…which is usually not the case in the typical public yoga class!

If you look back at the ancient texts, the physical asana practice was never meant to stand alone as the full yogic path. It has been noted many times that Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, outlined in the Yoga Sutras, include ethical behaviors, asana, pranayama, and ever-subtler experiences of meditation. I think some schools of yoga seem to interpret this as a linear hierarchy, where you have to master the poses before you are ready to attempt meditation. But, there is another school of thought that says we can really benefit from practicing both postural yoga and formal meditation side by side.

So here are a few of the elements of a mindful yoga practice:

  • Start by creating space to connect, then build on that connection. I typically start lying down, or seated, and spend several minutes simply trying to “come home” to the body. This is a check-in time where you notice how the body is feeling, sense the emotional states that may be present, and acknowledge the activity level of your mind at the moment. These observations are judgement-free, and they help you practice in a way that is sensitive to your present-moment reality. Otherwise, you’ll probably just do what you always do, the same way you always do it…which sounds a lot like auto-pilot. So start in a very simple, undemanding shape, where you can establish a connection to the actual feeling of the body and breath, so that you can come back to that more easily during the more complex poses or movements later in your yoga session.
  • In yoga poses, direct attention to the felt sense of the body. The “felt sense” means the real-time sensations in the yoga-hands-matbody, including the obvious ones and the more subtle ones. Take in anything and everything – from the feeling of your hamstrings stretching, to your leg muscles working hard to hold your Warrior pose, to the expansion of your chest on an inhale, to the pressure of your palm touching the floor, or the fabric of your shirt draping over your back. Feeling into the poses this way directs our attention away from concepts and stories about the body and toward a direct experience of the body. Of course, we still want to pay attention to safe alignment, but it’s easy to get caught up in endlessly arranging our parts, rather than ever truly feeling them. Feeling into the direct experience of the body is a huge part of what we do in mindfulness meditation, so we bring this onto the mat when we practice mindful yoga.
  • Experiment with the pace of your practice. Often a “Mindfulness Yoga” practice is on the slower side, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Slowing down can help you connect to the felt sense of the body and sustain your focus there, but mindfulness should be present at any tempo, whether you’re doing an intense Vinyasa Flow, a series of static standing poses, or a mellow Yin Yoga session.
  • Pause and notice. It helps to stop often to check in, pausing to deliberately break the momentum of the practice. Momentum is where habits go to hide. We easily get lost in the familiarity of a well-worn sequence and find ourselves spacing out. Or, we may find ourselves getting trapped inside our heads, as we intellectualize about the complexities of asana and anatomy. When we pause, we notice – and we can come back to our intention to practice in a way that emphasizes mindfulness. Speaking of which…
  • Be mindful of your intention. Rather than having a goal of mastering a particular pose or working the body out in a certain way, a mindful yoga practice centers around intentions that are more internal and meditative in nature: to awaken embodied awareness and an attitude of kindness toward the body, to strengthen the continuity of mindfulness through all activities, or to see how feelings influence your movements on the mat, for example. There’s a time and place for analyzing and “workshopping” poses, or refining your sequencing, and there’s a time to just feel in a more receptive, inwardly-drawn mode. In a mindful yoga practice, heightening our ability to feel enhances our ability to know change in the body, moment to moment – which leads to insight.

From the outside, it may not look all that different from how you already practice. The difference is in how you create space, work with intention, and how you place your attention.

This can all look really humble. I like to say that it’s not “show off” yoga, but rather “show up” yoga. In a mindful yoga practice, we are practicing fully showing up for ourselves – and our lives, our fellow humans, and our world. We are setting out to cultivate wisdom on the mat, and to practice asana in a way that supports and leads to seated meditation.

Feel free to share any other thoughts or tips for a mindful yoga practice in the comments!

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.