“Balancing poses generate bravery and confidence, and help you get to know which way the wind blows in your mind.”
We weekend in a popular beach town that gets inundated by hordes of summer vacationers, and this year a whole gang of frat boys has rented the house next door. One mellow summer evening, I’ve only just begun Saluting the Setting Sun when way-too-loud dance music comes blasting over the hedge. I feel desperate, disappointed and distracted. In fact, my mind is so disturbed that I fall out of my tree pose. How can I balance on one leg with Gloria Gaynor screaming “I Will Survive”? I try to tie my mind to my breath, but I am resentful and I keep tipping over. This music is ruining my practice.
Now I’m upside down and twisting. This is a challenging pose but when I see the blue cloudless sky, I feel vast and grounded. Twist to the other side. I look up and a big black rain cloud is flying my way. “Bummer,” I think, and start to tip over again, when CLICK, I get it. My mind is tipping my body over!
Yoga practice gives us immediate feedback about our current mental climate, because when we get buffeted by our shifting mind currents, our body responds in kind and we literally lose our balance. On the other hand, trying to cling to or reject what arises will also be reflected in our physicality—we get tight and forget to breathe, or we disengage and collapse.
So if we don’t let our mind bounce around, but we don’t make thoughts go away either, how do we find mental balance, and in turn physical balance? One approach is mindfulness meditation, which harmonizes body and mind through one-pointed concentration. Another is traditional hatha yoga, which calms the body as a means of stabilizing the mind. I invite you to explore both methods simultaneously with a wordless dancing dialogue between the two, in which our body teaches our mind and our mind teaches our body.
As we start to recognize our mental patterns and relax their hold, we become better able to balance. That doesn’t mean you never tip over in tree pose, but that you relate to what happens differently. Have you noticed what trees do when the wind blows? The branches bend gracefully with a gentle breeze. In the throes of a storm, they will go to extremes of bending and twisting, then unwind like a pinwheel.
When body and mind become more balanced, when rajas [Skt.: activity force] and tamas [inactivity force] equalize, we begin to experience sattva [purity], the third guna [fundamental quality]. Yoga students often tell me their friends think that they look different even though they haven’t physically changed that much.
The second scripture of Patanjali’s Yogasutras says, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Vice-abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, Jiro Osho, says, “Mind is like the weather. It keeps changing and we can never get away from it.” Maybe we can be a cloud that floats in the sky and be the sky at the same time.
As you do the following poses, notice how each one requires paying attention to more than one thing—body parts, breathing, energetic direction. The only way to do that is to stay mentally focused but not rigid, awake but relaxed. That’s how balancing poses, in addition to strengthening your arms, legs and back, generate bravery and confidence and help you get to know which way the wind blows in your mind.
Stay in each pose for 3-5 breaths.
1. Knee into Chest. Place your hands on your hips and feel that your pelvis is parallel to the floor and ceiling. Maintain that alignment as you exhale, and lift your left knee up toward your chest. Your standing leg is your base and must remain straight. Lower your left leg if it helps you keep your standing leg straight.
2. Tree Pose with Prayer Hands. Slowly begin to open your left leg out to the side. Go only as far as you can, keeping both hips pointing forward like headlights. Press your palms together. Deepen your breathing and feel your midline defined by the meeting of your foot and thigh, palms together, lungs moving together as you inhale, the breath at the tip of your nose. Look and really see what is in front of you.
3. Tree Blows in the Wind. Trace the midline of your body with your palms as you raise your arms overhead. Then separate your hands and let your left arm float down onto your left thigh. Keep your right arm reaching long. Slowly begin to bend to the left, like a tree blowing in the wind. You might fall over, but don’t worry. Trees fall over all the time. They provide the compost for the next tree to rise up. See if you can ride the wobbly feeling of this pose and if you fall, let that be the seed of your next tree pose.
4. Warrior. Inhale and come back up to vertical with both arms reaching straight up to the ceiling. Bring your left knee forward and bend your standing leg. Lengthen your left leg straight behind at the same time that you reach forward with your upper body. Try to feel equal energy out your feet and your fingers, your tailbone and the crown of your head. Feel your breath in your back.
5. Lunge with Arms Up. Bend your standing leg enough so that you can touch the floor with your fingers. Come down into a lunge and organize your alignment so your front knee is directly over your ankle, your back leg is straight and your fingers are in line with your toes. Then inhale and lift your torso and arms up. Feel your feet reaching down to the earth as your fingers reach up to the ceiling. Let your front ribs soften and fall back to your back ribs. Relax your face, jaw, and toes.
6. Straight Leg Lunge with Arms Down. Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, straighten your front leg and lower your arms down by your side. As you do this, feel like your spine grows taller. As you inhale, bend your front leg again and lift your arms back up. Repeat this 3 times.
7. Downward Dog. Place your palms on the floor and step your front leg back into downward facing dog pose. See if you are using your arms evenly, but checking to see if each hand has the same amount of weight. Then do the check for your legs and feet. Let your head dangle as you reach your sitting bones up. Stay here for 5 breaths.
8. Downward Dog Split. On an inhale, lift your left leg up to the ceiling. Keep reaching toward the floor with the opposite heel. Be mindful that you are not dipping one shoulder, but keeping them even. Use your arms strongly. Stay here for 3 breaths.
9. Replace your foot to the floor. Bend your knees slightly and walk your feet up to your hands. Roll up through your spine all the way back up to standing. Do the other side.