Friday, February 27, 2009

The Three Fundamentals

I often refer to the Three Fundamentals as Clandestine Yoga. We often think of yoga as something we do in a specific time and place, away from all distractions. While a disciplined practice is a powerful ally, we aren’t likely to bust out a triangle pose in the frozen-food aisle when we feel our hips stiffening up, nor are we likely to set aside our daily work to practice shoulderstand each time our neck aches. The Three Fundamentals are powerful medicine and can be practiced at any time and at any place.

Alignment Yoga classes generally start with a meditation on the Three Fundamentals. This helps us drop the stresses and tensions we unconsciously burden ourselves with, and sets the stage for a focused, joyful yoga practice. Keeping the Three Fundamentals in mind while practicing the yogasana strengthens the muscles of inner awareness, and paves the way for moving through the day with more ease and equanimity.

The Three Fundamentals are uniquely applicable to Westerners – the yogis of India don’t often encounter such caffeinated, multi-tasking, stressed out people! To derive the maximum benefit from this ancient practice, a few minutes to level the playing field can be a great investment of time. The Three Fundamentals are the result of years of yoga teaching and watching where Westerners consistently miss the boat in their yogic studies. I hope you take a few minutes with the following audio meditation to acquaint yourself with the Three Fundamentals.

Grounding is the first fundamental of Alignment Yoga. We can equate grounding with steadiness, reliability and other positive character traits. It’s our natural state, though in 21st century life, grounding becomes more challenging. We multi-task, consume stimulants and keep ourselves on overdrive much of the time. The result is a disconnection from the ground beneath us, and a host of challenges result. In the physical realm, an ungrounded body tends to have stiff & sore neck and shoulders. (By comparison, a grounded body that’s supported from its foundation tends to be energetic and robust.) In the mind, an ungrounded state tends to experience anxiety, depression and insomnia. (By comparison, a grounded mind is alert, observant and steady.) Grounding is literally the ground that supports our practice.

Relax the Palate
Releasing the tension within the skull is the second fundamental of Alignment Yoga. When we first hear this, it often sounds kind of strange. What does relaxing the roof of the mouth have to do with anything? Interestingly, it has a lot to do with the tension of the jaw, neck and shoulders that plagues so many people. An ounce of tension in the skull will feel like 10 pounds of tension in the shoulders, and to release the palate even a little bit can go a long ways to releasing the tensions everywhere else in the body. Because of the palate’s proximity to the brain, even small changes at the source predict big changes in the entire system. When you learn to relax and broaden the roof of the mouth, you’ll also learn to relax the nasal pharynx muscles, which can benefit those with chronic sinus trouble.

Full Commitment Exhale
Full commitment exhale is the third fundamental of Alignment Yoga. It’s the intelligence of the breathing that makes Yoga very special and powerful, and exhaling is the gateway to breathing. To bring fresh, oxygenated air into the lungs requires the evacuation of all the stale, spent air. The fullness of the exhale predicts the vitality of the inhale. We call this exhale the Full Commitment Exhale.

Each session starts with a few minutes to bring these fundamentals into awareness. This helps to release tension, focus the mind and make the transition from daily life to yoga practice. For beginners we do this while lying on the back in Constructive Rest Position. For intermediate and advanced students, we do this while seated in a yogic meditation posture. With the Three Fundamentals in mind, we then move into the more active practices of Hatha Yoga such as Asana, Pranayama, Bandha, Kriya and Mudra.

9 minutes
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