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 Wood Element & Spring Season in Yin Yoga

blossoms_sierramadreLong before humans peered through microscopes to discover that the world is constructed out of particles like atoms, molecules, and DNA, ancient peoples recognized the same principle – that every object is made up of many smaller parts coming together to form a whole. Taoism, Buddhism, and Ayurveda each describe how the Elements (materials and forces found in nature, including Air, Water, Fire, Earth, etc.) compose the human body and every object on our planet…as well as the planet itself!

The Elements are an interesting framework for viewing our yoga practice on many levels, as they relate to the physical health of the body and energetic system, emotional and psychological balance, philosophical principals about the nature of Self, and our connection to our environment.

In Chinese Medicine, the Elements are also associated with specific seasons of the year, and can help us practice yoga in a way that’s in tune with the rhythms of nature. The patterns of the seasons are also reflected in our own body’s energetic rhythms. When we practice with the elements, we remember that we humans are not separate from this Earth.

The Winter is a time of internal focus, when we are like seeds buried underground preparing to sprout. Once Spring arrives, the Wood Element represents that sprout emerging. The Wood Element energizes us to initiate transformation. This is a time of starting over, a rebirth of sorts. This fresh start can come with growing pains and frustrations, as it takes time for our new projects and ideas to take root.

labyrinth_arlingtonparkIn the Spring, we can benefit from cultivating “beginners mind,” and being flexible as we plan and organize the new visions that arise.

If you practice Yin Yoga, include poses that target the Liver/Gallbladder Meridians, which are associated with the Wood Element, and thought to help balance the tendency toward impatience as we initiate changes in Spring. These poses would be your side bends, hip openers, and stretches for the inner leg, including Shoelace, Square Pose, Swan Pose, Banana Pose, and Dragonfly (among others).

In your practice in general, look for ways to channel your active thinking mind – it may be in overdrive with all this new Spring energy! Concentration techniques in meditation (like counting the breaths) can help, as can breathing exercises that lengthen the exhales. The soothing qualities of the exhale can help calm the nervous system. Here’s an audio I recorded about a year ago entitled “Extending the Exhales” – give it a try!

Enjoy the fresh starts that Spring brings. Take steps forward and initiate transformation, but keep things in perspective and practice patience. Spend time outside in nature, and be sure to give your creativity some outlets.

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!

Bo Forbes: “Rethink Working with Connective Tissue”

This is an interesting (and quick) video with Bo Forbes on the Yoga International website touching on some of the latest findings about how fascia works.

If you haven’t run across Bo Forbes before, she is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology, behavioral medicine, sleep disorders, and stress management. She is definitely someone to have on your radar if you are interested in integrating scientific/medical knowledge, as well as mindfulness meditation, with yoga.

A few of the most intriguing statements are these: “Much of the injury we think is muscular really comes from overstretching fascia that’s not hydrated.”

and

“The work that’s now integrating into the yoga systems and bodywork is really looking at how do we teach people to work with their own connective tissue matrix in a way that’s not just sort of diving in to loosen things up, but in a way that really listens to a very, very visceral and subtle dialogue between the connective tissue and the nervous system and works in a way that the work can be integrated.”

boforbesvideo

mesh-internetWe Yin Yoga practitioners love to geek out about fascia and talk about how our practice targets and benefits the connective tissues in particular. So, it’s important that we stay up-to-date on the incredible amount of research that’s coming out about our internal interwebs, our amazing matrix, our fascinating fascia.

Here are a few tips for incorporating this knowledge into your Yin Yoga practice:

Movement tends to hydrate the tissues more than long-held poses, which is why I like to include a few minutes of gentle one-breath-one-movement poses before diving into the meditative Yin practice. This is not so much to generate heat (warm up), but to hydrate the fascia and help establish embodied awareness, which most people connect with more easily in movement than in stillness.

Increasingly, I’ve been exploring how self-massage complements yoga (both Yin and “Yang” forms). This is another way to hydrate the fascia and release places where the web is holding on too tightly. I know this is not a scientific way to describe it, but experientially, when you feel a tender spot or a knot let go in massage, a feeling of greater freedom and integration comes along with it. I sense less of a harsh pull around those spots when I stretch them after working with massage balls. Those spots feel like they’re ready to play nice with the surrounding tissues. And, like movement, massage is an excellent way to heighten awareness of sensation in the body so that we go into our postural practice mindfully plugged in.  The Yoga Tune Up therapy balls are great for this, and by the way, I am loving Jill Miller’s new book, The Roll Model, which also includes a section on fascia anatomy.

Also, as Bo mentions, props like blocks, blankets, and bolsters help provide some stability in the pose, which signals the nervous system that it’s OK to relax, thus avoiding a “backlash” of resistance in the tissues. The more we learn about how fascia works, the more we understand the huge role that the nervous system plays. The bottom line when it comes to stretching is: less is more! Dial back that intensity. Use prop support when you need it. Enjoy your practice, but don’t overstretch. Gradual, gentle change is more Yin-like anyway.

Important food for thought for Yin Yogis…enjoy!

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.

Yin Yoga in Whole Life Times Magazine

Recently, I was contacted for a quote about Yin Yoga for an article in Whole Life Times Magazine. The article, by Charlene Oldham, focuses on the healing aspects of Yin Yoga, and I was honored to be included. You can access the whole issue online here, or check out the Yin article (and my photos!) below.

wholelifetimes_pasteup

For your yoga pleasure

AnneCushmanBookCoverI am currently reading and practicing with Anne Cushman’s new book Moving into Meditation: A 12-Week Mindfulness Program for Yoga Practitioners. If you know anything about my blog, you can tell from the title of her book that it’s right up my alley. Like waaaay up my alley. And it is such a clear, engaging, brilliant, humorous, and inspiring book, that I have looked forward to each day’s practice with it for about 9 weeks now (since it came out in July – yes, I am such a nerd, I had pre-ordered it). I can’t recommend it to you enough if you are interested in the fruitful integration of postural yoga with a formal meditation practice.

When you combine these practices together in a genuine way, as Anne Cushman has for many years, it is a truly potent path with all the advantages of meditation’s stillness and yoga’s momentum. You find you can slow down without getting stuck. You can move forward without running away. Light bulbs click on in every level of your being – body, heart, and mind.

To give you an idea of what the book is like, I’ll describe a practice session I had last week inspired by one of the exercises from chapter eight. This chapter is entitled “I love it! I hate it! I’m bored to death!” and it’s about vedana, or the feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Both the Buddhist and yogic meditation traditions teach that we have these three categories of reaction automatically with every experience. (I wrote a little about vedana in an earlier post here about how we decide when it’s time to come out of a pose.) Basically, this is the mind’s quick-sort mechanism trying to protect us from what’s bad and steer us toward what’s good. But at the same time, this creates a relentless push-pull that can result in quite a bit of internal struggle and really drive our behavior in a lot of ways we’re not aware of until we start observing it. And, often our knee-jerk reactions are a bit off. The yoga mat is a great place to look at how vedana works. 

a-few-of-my-favorite-things3So, in the exercise “A Few of Your Favorite Things,” the instructions are to do an asana practice made up entirely of poses you find pleasant. Sounds great, right?

Well. Guess what. It was impossible!

I was, of course, looking forward to a blissful yoga session made up of all my favorite poses, and I generally think of yoga as a pleasant thing, so what could be better? Ok, so I had some suspicion that the purpose of this practice would be for the student to notice that an all-pleasant practice isn’t attainable. Yet, there was a part of me (and probably a part of you too, except for all my fully enlightened readers) that wanted to believe that I could get it just right and have the yoga session of the century. 

In actuality, there were definite moments of unpleasant feeling tone during the practice, and even within an overall pleasant-feeling pose. Sometimes getting into the pose wasn’t that pleasant, but it was great once I was there. Or the first few breaths in Down Dog were pure delight (ahhh…calves), but staying in it too long made it unpleasant because my elbows begin to ache (they have a tendency to want to hyperextend). On the right side, the reclining twist created a very pleasant stretch in the chest, but the left side was actually painful! Then there was that moment when I encountered a surprising pinching sensation in my sacrum as I settled into a pose that’s always been enjoyable before.

If you do this practice and have the same experience I had, it doesn’t mean that we chose the wrong poses or that we’re doing it all wrong. It means we’re actually seeing things the way they really are. (I challenge you – try it!)

mosaicheartTruly, there is no such thing as a purely pleasant moment (or a purely unpleasant moment) – it is more like each moment is a mosaic of some pleasant experiences, some unpleasant experiences, and some neutral. This is because we react to everything and there’s a lot going on in each and every little moment. One feeling tone may be much more obvious than the others at the time, but if you look closely you will see that there are aspects, maybe subtle, of the others. For example, imagine you’re talking a walk on a hot summer’s day. Here’s your internal monologue: “Ooh, that breeze is nice (pleasant), but the sun is too darn hot today (unpleasant). And the sun is right in my eyes (unpleasant), but the lighting looks really cool on that tree over there (pleasant).” Meanwhile, you were unaware of the feeling of your arms swinging (neutral), your breath (neutral), and your feet hitting the pavement (neutral). 

chocolateIf you are reading this and thinking, “Wait a minute…I have definitely had some great moments of pure joy. And, there was nothing unpleasant about that chocolate bar I had last night!” I don’t doubt your moments of pure joy and chocolate bars. But, if you think back to those experiences, was there any hint of “I wish this would never end,” or “How soon can I do this again,” or “Why does chocolate have to have so many calories?”

Uh huh. The pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral tones are all right there next to each other.

I have noticed this before, but it is so clear in an asana practice where you set out with the intention to make everything pleasant. So, is this a bummer that there’s no purely pleasant yoga practice? (Seriously – I challenge you to prove me wrong!)

Not in my mind – I feel like it gives us permission to use less energy trying to make everything all perfect all the time. We are such frenemies with our experience (frenemy etymology = friend/enemy). We’re always pushing and pulling at things to try to get them a certain way. That’s not bad or wrong, but at some point it does become tiresome. Let’s relax.

I hope you’ll try this practice, and I highly recommend Anne Cushman’s entire book. I am looking forward to learning a lot more from her this fall at the Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training program I’m taking at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I’ll be sure to keep you updated with tales from my practice there. Namaste!