Push Down to Rise Up
The first eight or nine years (I’ve lost count of when I started) of my yoga practice were fairly sloppy in terms of how I held and found my way into different poses. Back then, I had no idea what it felt like to “engage.”
My body is naturally very mobile (my joints and tendons move easily) but, paradoxically, my muscles are not actually very flexible (they tend to be tight). This means that I can sit in full lotus and feel no stretch simply because my hip joints move easily. I can wrap my arms into weird and impressive looking shapes without noticing because my elbows bend way past the normal range of motion and hyperextend; I call this “flipper arms,” because it’s kind of cute like a seal, but it always weirds people out when they see it in-person. (Side note, I don’t do this anymore because it’s really bad for my joints).
It actually wasn’t until yoga teacher training that I really started understanding the dynamics of what Anusara yoga calls “muscle energy” and “organic extension” which are now crucial components of my practice and my teaching. Muscle energy and organic extension are so essential that they are considered two (of the five) foundations of practice.
In the past, I was all organic extension. I could put myself into fancy shapes without warming up (because I was relying on the mobility in my joints rather than my muscles), and when a teacher said to “stretch” I could fly apart/unwind to the edges of the room.
But I was TERRIBLE at engaging (or even finding) strength, at applying “muscle energy” which is basically using your muscles to “hug in,” to engage BEFORE you stretch so that you don’t end up hurting yourself (which somehow I avoided, against all the odds.) This is sometimes explained in classes as strength before stretch and it’s SUPER important.
Now, when I teach (and in my own practice), I use cues like “push DOWN into the floor, use that push to lift your hips up to the sky” or “push your palms down and away from you as you push your hips back towards your heels.” I’m all about engagement now because I know that really using your muscles will keep the stretch safe AND make it SO MUCH DEEPER. (Try cementing your psalm spread wide down into blocks or the ground in a forward fold, THEN straighten your legs, you will feel the stretch in different places, I promise).
It’s the engagement that allows us to find the freedom to rise up and to find space both in our bodies and internally. In this side plank pictured above, it’s how much you can push into your hand and the blade of your foot that allows you to lift the hips skyward and not crumple in the side of the ribs.
In autumn, the energy of nature is moving rapidly down. It’s a tempting time of year to crumple or collapse, to be overtaken by grief and despair.
If you can find the strength to move with nature, to descend without sinking, to push down into and engage with the support you’ve built for yourself, you will forge a deeper relationship with yourself. This depth, this inner knowing, will help you to rise back up with a sense of vision and purpose when spring comes back again.
I know that this autumn and the coming winter are feeling especially hard for many of us, with the scary restrictions and the looming unknowability of COVID-19.
One thing I’ve been doing to battle the potential for despair is to picture myself five years into the future, when we have a vaccine, when the world has been in the process of rebuilding itself. Where do I want to be when this is all over? What structure and support do I need now to set the stage for the life I want to live?
Autumn and winter are the most important times of year for self-care. Without the structure of self-care and other actions that allow you to deepen into yourself, the dark and the cold can leave you stuck in that suspended sense of doom and gloom.
The shorter days are in themselves a structure and a support. The limitations of daylight during these months require us to be thoughtful in how we will spend our time.
Take some time in the next few weeks to make a list of activities, thoughts, behaviors, actions, or a schedule that will help you feel connected to yourself, rooted in your own strength and your own unique capacity to be your best self. Then use that list to engage your life by rooting into yourself.
Allow your energy to move down and settle into your connecting actions and self-care. Engage deeply now so that you can expand this spring.
May you always align with your own unique strengths.