The balance, the sweetness, the freedom in the practice of (Ashtanga) yoga can be found in the subtle dance between prana and apana.
Expressed on the inhale, prana lives in the heart, while apana, visible on the exhale, is found in the kidneys and the pelvic floor. Both are equal and they link asanas (postures) together.
We get stability from apana and awakening through prana. As such, prana is stimulated in backbending and apana in forward folds. Pranayama is the balancing of the two. Sthira Sukham Asanam, the qualities of Steadiness and Ease in asana practice (and within ourselves), can be cultivated by consciously working with these two.
The play between prana and apana affects the body and the mind. Prana triggers imagination, it creates stories, and apana pops our bubbles. Quoting senior teacher Richard Freeman, “The forms of the prana reveal themselves as not absolute and apana brings the mind back to the present moment - for better or for worse.”
The play of prana and apana unfolds from the very first breath, in Ekam. On the yoga mat, we wish to balance prana and apana to access the central channel of the body. That provoques satisfaction. So we find the residue of prana in apana and the residue of apana in prana :) On the exhale, our attention should be placed on the residue of the inhale, on the center of the heart, and on the inhale, we should focus on the center of the pelvic floor. So we can feel the forms, the excitement of prana, and remain grounded.
The breath becomes a priceless tool to explore body and mind. The wealth and depth of the practice of yoga is in the Vinyasa, breath and movement coming together. A skilled, sophisticated yoga practitioner is that who gathers an understanding of the breath, rather than just physical ability.
Within this framework, I will discuss two movements of great importance, Chatvari and Urdhva Mukha, and a few ideas to bring prana and apana together.
Chatvari is the basis of Strength. As such, it happens on the Exhale.
When we exhale our pelvic floor naturally activates, specially at the very end of the exhale, right before the in-breath kicks in. The coccyx becomes heavier and the kidney area spreads.
If core strength is not one of our powers :), the ribs will flare out (we usually want to keep them in). If you notice that the belly collapses in chatvari, place your knees on the ground and allow the strength to build up across the trunk. If you can keep your knees off the floor, use your thigh muscles, power through them, as these are gateways to the pelvic floor.
Along with the reigning apanic pattern in chatvari, we wish to keep the lightness of the posture, the ease, the joy! This can be found in the chest, that we keep wide and lifted, the shoulders neutral, the shoulder blades rolled towards the waistline (not backwards!), the breastbone lifted, the collarbones wide and the throat soft.
The front of the armpits face forwards and the arms are best kept slightly away from the trunk, so the work goes to the trunk, the shoulder girdle and the legs. If your body shakes, let it shake :)
As per Urdhva Mukha, this is such an important move, specially in the First Series! Urdhva mukha is a backbend and as such it happens on the inhale. It should be properly understood to safely perform more challenging spinal extensions, such as Urdhva Dhanurasana, Kapotasana and drop backs. It also balances the grounding dynamic in the First Series and prepares the spine and nervous system for the Second Series.
When it comes to backbending, I find useful to articulate the movement from the sides of the pubic bone, spiralling along the hip joints. I better access that area by rolling the legs slightly out (apana) and, once I feel the sides of the pubic bone, I gently roll them back in (prana), so, when looked from above, the inner thighs are spreading towards the ceiling. These are just actions and counteractions to cultivate the continuous refinement that the elusive moola bandha demands.
Also, I try to find length along my inner thighs, all the way down to the inner side of the knee and the big toe, so the legs are engaged yet lengthened, and so is the psoas muscle, which holds the pelvis in place and keeps the lower back free of strain. The sides of the waist slightly converge towards the navel line.
The tailbone drops slightly and so does the pubic bone, whereas the sacrum floats up and forward, towards the belly button. It is my impression that the above unlock the lower back.
The arms are a bit apart, giving the side ribs breathing room. The legs and the psoas muscle propel the pelvis up and forward and, firmly rooted in the pelvic floor, the spine extends organically from its basis to the first vertebra, right at the base of the cranium.
The kidneys lift and spread, the shoulder blades roll down (not back!), the shoulders are wide, its front facing forwards, the roots of the index and middle fingers push firmly against the floor, the breastbone lifts and the collarbones widen. Then, the head can tilt backwards. Throat soft always :)
It might be a lot to take in, and also, there are other approaches that will surely work. Anyhow, I though it would make sense to offer some ideas to access the inner body and take things from there. Embrace these instructions with an open mind. Do not dismiss them or take them as dogmas. There are many bodies and many minds in this world, none of them the same. See what works for you. Accept that body and mind differ from day to day, so what worked yesterday might not work today. Lastly, if you struggle to get your head around any of the above, welcome to the club! The subtler you go, the more elusive it gets. In time, you’ll get there :)
For those of you who wish to take things further, I am teaching a Technique Session on Saturday December 8th. It will kick off at 11AM and will go on for a couple of hours. If you want to come, reach out for further details.