The first two limbs of yoga - the Yamas & Niyamas - center around the idea of relationship: the relationship with self and the relationship with other. Because these two fall first in the sequential order of the limbs, some would say that the entire rest of the practice hinges on this idea of relationship.
The yoga practice is always asking us to notice how we relate to ourselves on our mat. How am I relating to this posture? This sensation? This thought? This breath? But also, and maybe more implicitly, it is asking us to notice how we relate to ourselves and others off the mat. When we broaden our practice beyond just one context (i.e. on our mat) or beyond just one relationship (i.e. the one with ourself), our practice not only becomes dynamic, it becomes one of service (seva). Douglas Brooks says, “the most dangerous conclusion is to have only one.” And he’s right.
We also simultaneously open the door to overwhelm because we soon realize how much we don’t know. But I would invite us to walk through that door with a curious heart and an enthusiasm for study.
When we bring this sentiment into our alignment technique, we get the widening effect. Rather than teaching or practicing from one, sole alignment point - which can eventually become stuck in stagnancy or remain one-dimensional - we have the opportunity to pair two complementary actions in order to inspire a more lively and dynamic practice. When we put two alignment ideas or physical actions in relationship to one another, there is more juice for us to drink from, more content to explore. There is a balanced action (madhya) that we can eventually settle into with ease.
What would happen in our lives if we committed to opening to various perspectives on our mat? My hope is that two things would transpire:
We remember, collectively, our humanness and that we are allowed to change our tune, to revise how we feel about something. There is always room for revision, for more content, which makes us not either/or but both/and. We remember that we are not flat or facile but complex, layered, multi-colored, living, breathing, alive, pulsing.
We will be inclusive as we step out into the world. We will be accepting of the myriad ways that humans wish to express themselves. We need this, badly, in a world that houses humans who are closed-off and cruel toward what is not familiar to them; to a world that contains people who deem society as “right” as long as it is set in one shade of color.
Widening our perspective makes room for more. It carves out space for you to see your own depth and dimensionality. And if you begin to embrace this about yourself on your mat - during a more insular and personal self-inquiry - I hope that you are then active in your mission to extend that to the world around you.
[Bring It Into Practice]…
There is a crucial relationship between the front (anterior) chain of the body and the back (posterior) chain of the body. When we pay close attention to this relationship, we learn to backbend in a supportive, strong, intelligent way. We find a more harmonious and dynamic opening in the entire spine, versus having it stuck in one part (most times, it’s the vulnerable and mobile lumbar spine).
With a strong back body, the spine has something to gracefully lean into, like a loving friend. There’s a resiliency in this. When we open to the unknown (represented in the back body), to risk, to vulnerability, we carry our strength and the grit of our self-assurance and authenticity so that it may hold us along the way. A strong back body leads to a more sustainable, empowering kind of opening. This has to come from a dynamic, varied relationship. If we try to do it in one plane, or all alone, or boil it down to just “opening” the heart, our pose and practice might fall short.
Opening our heart isn’t always easy and it definitely isn’t passive. Opening our heart takes courage and strength. It takes effort. Our back body strength represents that very courage and strength and effort. Our front body represents that beautiful and brave opening.
So. let’s think about this physically now. We’ll look at front body opening paired with back body strengthening.
Poses that open the front body:
Cobra or updog
and anything that lengthens the quads & hip flexors, opens the chest, stretches the belly, and lengthens the front of the throat.
Poses that strengthen the back body:
and anything that engages the hamstrings & glutes, tones the lower back, activates the paraspinal muscles, draws the shoulder blades together on the upper back, and tones the back of the neck.