What the World Needs From Your Yoga Practice

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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.

When we embrace diverse ways of thinking, we open the door to possibility.

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.

A wholeness and harmony rises like when one heart meets its counterpart and a new world of freedom and potential opens up.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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]…

with backbends.

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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:

  • Lunges

  • Cobra or updog

  • Sphinx pose

  • Hero’s pose

  • 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:

  • Locust pose

  • Cobra

  • Warrior 3

  • Chair pose

  • Bridge pose

  • 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.


I recorded an audio version of this article as well!

What is true alignment and how do we find it?

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My teacher, Amy Ippoliti, once said, “alignment is putting things in place.” It stuck with me, I think because it speaks to the idea that alignment is different for all of us. We “put” things into place differently because we all have unique bodies with uniques desires, structures, capabilities and limitations. If we think of the golden scale, balance is when the scales are even and more stationary. Alignment is when the scales have freedom to move, exhibiting an ever-dynamic dance between the two. Alignment is a pulsing, breathing quality which mirrors the same pulsing, breathing quality of our essential nature.

Alignment craves room to shift and change with the fluctuations of our own desires and needs. What is true alignment for you? The answer to that question will change based on time, context and circumstance. That’s pretty beautiful, because this change reveres the colorful spectrum of you and your unconditional aliveness.

Let’s talk about alignment in two realms: the physical and mental/spiritual. I’ll talk about what alignment means to me in these two realms and some tips for how to find your own alignment here as well. I speak from my own experience practicing and teaching, in hopes that it might support you as you explore what it means to come into your own right and authentic alignment. All I can say is, I’m right alongside with you, figuring it out each day. Because it’s not that you figure out alignment once and then you’re done. Alignment is a daily practice. It takes structure and discipline to attend to our alignment (much like an art form) but when we do, alignment then begins to spontaneously arise in us; it becomes the poetic whisper that speaks right from and to our very core.

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PHYSICAL

In my asana practice, alignment is using two complementary actions to find my neutral. Neutral will look and feel different for each of us. A simple example of this is: in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), finding the sweet spot between rooting down through the legs and feet while rising up through the spine so you feel strong and open simultaneously. Alignment is inherently creative because it is open to interpretation and subtle adjustment. Even in that description, definitions of strong and open will slightly vary from person to person. You can play with so many alignment points in just one pose, which makes it fun and a lifelong practice! As a teacher, there are alignment cues I use to speak to the general class, however, each student will find the shade of that cue that works for them. Find a skilled teacher who not only knows good alignment but who offers different variations or languaging around the one cue. This will give you options to explore until you find ones that resonate more deeply with you.

Alignment techniques in asana serve as entry points into finding what brings you into neutral, both physically and mentally. They should be received as suggestions or invitations for your own explorations. True alignment, in the physical practice, honors both your body’s limitations and capabilities. It should aim to expand the boundaries of what you already know but not take you so far as to push your body toward pain or out of its natural, mechanical structure. Skilled teachers, a commitment to your own practice, and an open/curious mind will eventually lead you to not only finding true alignment, but to feeling confident coming into your own alignment, versus subscribing to someone else’s. This is when the practice starts to feel empowering and liberating, because you not only realize that your alignment might change but you know how to adapt when it does.

Art by Almost Anatomical

Art by Almost Anatomical

MENTAL/SPIRITUAL

Aligning with your truest self (which includes your desires, your values and your most present feelings) is a daily practice. Alignment in life can be as subtle as finding the right speech in conversation to as big as choosing a job that fits your interests, goals and values. This one is a little tougher to give tips on because I can’t tell you what to choose, how to speak or how to act in your day to day. But what I can offer you, that has helped me immensely, are ideas around how to figure out what helps you come closer to that true alignment. Here are a handful:

1. Writing Prompt

Write down who you are and how you are when you are in alignment. You can also write down who you are and how you are when you don’t feel in alignment, if that’s helpful. Here’s some of those answers for me. When I am in true alignment:

  • I don’t compare myself to others

  • I lose that sense of rush and self-pressure

  • I feel light-hearted and open, with a stronger desire to connect with others

  • I feel full in my femininity and sexy

  • My communication is more clear. I can pull the right words out more quickly. My speech feels beautiful and even poetic. I don’t feel a sense of regret as the words leave my mouth. Rather than feeling like I should have said something else, I feel self-assured in my expression.

Who are you when you’re in true alignment? Who are you when you’re out of true alignment? This is a great little list to have by your side because it will help you gauge your state of alignment. If I am feeling most of those things on my list, I then reflect on what practices or habits I’ve been engaging in that may be helping me get to that place. If I am not feeling in alignment, I go through the same reflection. This can help you narrow down what, and who, lends to your alignment and what, and who, takes you away from it. This is the road to creating healthy boundaries so you can be rooted in your most radiant self and show up that way for the world.

2. Slow down and reflect

Take time to sit with yourself, whether that’s through meditation, quiet writing, or a walk through nature. Limit distractions and stimulation so you can more clearly see and more loudly hear your alignment calling.

3. Move through it…and with it

Movement always stirs things up for me and seems to shake lose the doubt or fear that threaten to conceal my true alignment. Whether it’s dance, exercise, yoga or long walks, move your body to clear some junk out.

4. Commit

Commit to the practices that fuel and fulfill you; that bring you into truer alignment; that reveal the timeless parts of you; that let you drop into your center; that pull you into the heart of joy and delight; that bring you back when you forget yourself. These practices are always there for you but you need the drive and commitment to keep coming back to them, again and again. Show up for them and they’ll gift you with the unconditional essence of yourself.

5. Savor the beauty

Each time you feel yourself come into alignment, revel in it. Indulge it. Be a little extra, even. Celebrate those moments and glorify their beauty so that there’s a more fervid desire to return to it.


I hope this inspires you to touch in on your alignment. Thank you, as always, for sharing this space with me and committing to your own self-exploration.

Until next time! xo

Sarah

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