November | Uttanasana
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.14 The practice becomes firmly rooted when well attended to for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness.Sah tu dirgha kala nairantaira satkara asevitah dridha bhumih.
To experience the transformative power of the practice, it must be undertaken in a specific way (PYS 1.14). If we simply go to a yoga or meditation class without any regularity or strong intention, we will perhaps enjoy a fleeting feeling of peacefulness, but there is low likelihood of development beyond the physical/anatomical plane. With time, consistency and zeal, the practice has the ability to propel us forward and higher.
Uttanasana, the symmetrical standing forward fold that is encountered regularly during Vinyasa yoga classes, embodies the concept of moving inward, toward the subtle and metaphysical, through our practice. Strength and stability is cultivated through the legs and feet while the hips and pelvis are consciously aligned, together creating the conditions for spinal extension and spaciousness. As we give our weight to the earth there is a rebounding upward force that rises through the legs. Once we are settled into the form we perceive this force and can then utilize it to further elongate, strengthen, balance and release the spine to cascade forward. Gravity should do the work of moving one deeper into the pose; the practitioner must effectively “let go,” allowing the weight of the head to deliver one back toward the earth. As much strength as there is in the lower body, there must be an equal balance of surrender in the upper body to activate release. The softness can be found only if the base of the posture is stable - the physical giving way to the subtle.
Without direct application, firsthand experience of the transformative qualities of yoga is impossible, so a certain level of trust is demanded on the part of the yogi. To progress, there is a commitment of time, a willingness to employ discipline, and the necessity to have faith in the unknown and unfamiliar, which can feel like a bit of a gamble when that most precious commodity, time, is at stake. Uttanasana is a lifelike metaphor for this advancement in that, without a firmly established base, the possibility for expansion into a higher plane is unlikely. Usually, it is only through a firm foundation in the outward practices that the doorway is opened to the less tangible exploration of the inner landscape. Forward folding quiets the mind, allowing one’s true Self to work with the body in the service of regenerating connection to spirit – first observing and perceiving this life force, then feeling and, finally, acting from collective wisdom. The gaze, or drishti, turns inward as we move from the external form to the internal experience.
Through the niyama of swadhyaya (self-study and internal inquiry) weaknesses, habit patterns and negative tendencies will be uncovered. Although it is uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, to encounter these dark spaces within, it is usually at this precipice when we face the greatest opportunity to learn about ourselves. Therefore, the practitioner must kindle a fervent desire to know oneself, and a firm commitment to see the process through thick and thin. The worst thing to do is to uncover a soft spot and then beat ourselves up for what we perceive as a fatal flaw. We must welcome and accept our limitations so that we can get close enough to ourselves to see the roots of our hurts, anger, and self-loathing. Having compassion for the forces and conditions that mold our behaviors and beliefs we can develop more skill in handling, containing and redirecting self-destructive tendencies. The degree to which we can do this for ourselves is the degree to which we will have the capacity to cultivate this care for others.
Whether you attain any particular pose then becomes irrelevant once you commit to such an illuminating endeavor. When you practice with such honesty, progress toward physical mastery becomes secondary to a process that constantly brings you back to your true Self. Moving into the back body is a reminder to soften, fall back and connect with grace and humility. Within this configuration, allow yourself to be moved and changed by your breath, as if the posture is an open question rather than a definitive answer.
Shifting from being the mover to letting life move through us, working with nature's wisdom, we make the first step toward surrendering our heart to spiritual practice. The shift from ignoring our inner guide to realizing it exists and then listening skillfully to our innate intuition marks the beginning of this change of mind. The forms then become vehicles for experiencing one's essential nature rather than goals in and of themselves. We experience liberation and freedom through a firmly rooted, sincerely devoted and earnest practice, encompassing both the external and the internal.
Allison Joy Phillips
Part of this FOTM was adapted from Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit by Donna Farhi