Balancing act

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“What are the reasons for practising handstand?” the instructor asked on Saturday from the front of the spacious conference room at the Toronto Yoga Conference. Among the many answers provided, two reasons stood out for me:

To confront our fear of being upside down.

To allow ourselves to grow by meeting and coming closer to overcoming challenges.

We were asked to choose a partner with whom we would spend the next two hours practising the techniques to would lead us closer to moving into handstand away from the wall. Throughout that time, while practising my own handstand and learning by watching the man with whom I was partnered, as well as other yogis in the room, I was reminded of several interesting points:

When I allow myself to be intimidated, or when I feel physically fatigued, my form and technique suffer. When I follow the technical points closely and take my time to stay centred and calm, I move more gracefully and am able to float into a pose with ease. The opposite is true when I rush.

Courage inspires exhilarating growth, leading us into wisdom.

Inversions are fun. That is why I enjoy playing with handstand and forearm balance. However, inversions require Presence. The constant attention is necessary to keep the balance. If, for just a split second, we allow ourselves to become distracted or allow ourselves to think of how hard we are working to stay balancing upside-down, we immediately start to wobble.

Life is a careful balance between work and play, hopefully at the same time! And that is what keeps me coming back to the mat.

I am reminded every day of why I continue to practise. The subtle lessons I learn about myself on the mat provide me with countless opportunities to see myself with honesty as I examine my approach to life. When I approach my practice from a mindset focused entirely on hard work, I end up struggling. If, however, I remain confident and move with ease, my breath and body move with the same ease and grace.

When I remind myself to move from a place of Mindfulness, to approach every event with Presence, allowing life to unfold and intuitively choosing each response, the pieces of the puzzle settle naturally into the correct places. Moving with ease and mindfulness in life does not mean that I stop working; it doesn’t mean I simply sit there and life takes care of itself. The opposite is true: I am able to get more done when I remind myself to be present. I feel more joy when I am present.

When we start to feel all the pieces of life become scattered, when we allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed, we can always remind ourselves to simply be with what is. To me, this is the equivalent of facing our fear of being turned upside down. If we don’t feel grounded through our feet, we can press more firmly through the hands that are touching the earth. In any inversion in yoga, we are reminded to press down and aim higher while staying strong through the core and the centre of gravity. We can always work with what is happening to us, provided that we remember to stay present.

By meeting these challenges head-on, we allow ourselves to grow and become stronger. Perhaps, one day, these challenges will not feel as big and scary. For a beginner yoga practitioner, to hold tree pose for 5-10 breaths might feel like an enormous challenge. Yet, after we have been practising for a while, tree pose feels easy, so we move on to more advanced poses to keep us curious.

I used to think of stress as scary. I still sometimes just want to hide away in my comfort zone to avoid doing anything unusual. Yet, the times when I allow myself to stretch out of my shell and tread into deeper waters are also the times when I open myself up to new enlightening experiences.

Growth can be scary. Even the idea of success can be scary, because we tend to resist any change, whether we perceive it as positive or negative. At the end of the day, it enriches our experience. Balance in life doesn’t mean that everything stops moving and we spend our entire days in stillness and peace. Stillness and peace come from within as we continue to learn to negotiate and adapt to fluctuations.

So, I’m inviting myself to play with balance and keep my Savasana face on at all times, even when — especially when — I start to notice the pieces of the puzzle start to come apart. I know that everything will settle into its rightful place, as long as we continue to approach life with curiosity, love, courage and grace.

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How do you approach the idea of balance in your life? Feel free to leave us a comment to share your experience.

Thank you for sharing this blog with a friend!

Step-by-Step Guide to Chaturanga Dandasana

Call me strange, but I have always enjoyed doing push-ups. Even in elementary school’s gym class, I was the girl who would lift her knees up off the floor to attempt the full push-up variation. No, it didn’t look pretty or impressive in any way, but I suppose I was a bit Type-A with my fitness goals.

When I was first introduced to Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in 1998, Sun Salutations intrigued me with their smooth flow. I relished the fast-paced but graceful movements that released tension from my body. Yet, Chaturanga Dandasana (four-limbed staff pose) was a confusing transition pose for me. I remember thinking, “Aha! Lowering down into a low push-up position from high plank is so much easier than having to press back up!” Of course, a few years later, I realized that the reason it felt easy to me was because I was cheating! I didn’t lower into the pose with control. My hips drooped low, my belly sagged, and my elbows splayed out to the sides as I tried to get Chaturanga and Upward-Facing Dog over with in order to make it to the place where I really wanted to be: Downward-Facing Dog, taking a delicious break for a few breaths. The power of confession!

Chaturanga Dandasana is a pose that is often approached as a quick transition pose in the Sun Salutations portion of a Vinyasa / Ashtanga practice. However, it’s important to maintain focus, integrity, and strength in this pose as it can be incredibly informative for the physical and emotional aspects of our yoga practice.

I prepared this step-by-step guide to help you find this focus, integrity and strength in your own practice. I recommend working on these steps with a qualified yoga instructor and using my tips only as a supplement for your personal home practice.

1. To prepare for Chaturanga, come to rest on your hands and knees, positioning a block on the mat at the medium height directly underneath your chest. Align the elbows and shoulders directly over the wrists and the hips directly over the knees. Inhale and allow the belly to soften. On the exhale, lift the pelvic floor and the belly. Keep this core connection as you inhale and allow your elbows to open out to the sides, keeping your hands firmly planted on the mat, pressing down through the thumb and index finger parts of the hands. Exhale, and hug the triceps in toward the midline. Now, your arms and core are firmly engaged. Stay here for up to five full breaths.

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Take rest in child’s pose for five or more breaths. Then, if you feel ready for the next step, proceed as follows.

2. Continue to keep the engagement of the upper body and core as you inhale and stretch one leg back, pressing the ball of the foot firmly into the mat. Exhale and repeat the same motion with the other leg, planting the balls of both feet into the mat. Continue to breathe deeply as you keep the arms strong, the triceps hugging in, keeping the elbows soft, reaching the heart forward toward the top of your mat and keeping your gaze forward without straining your neck. Keep your core strong by continue to lift the pelvic floor and belly upward. Spin the inner thighs up toward the ceiling to broaden through the lower back while pressing the heels toward an imaginary wall behind you. Broaden through the scapula. Continue to breathe deeply and hold plank pose for up to five full breaths.

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Lower the knees down to the mat and rest in child’s pose for five or more breaths. If you feel strong after holding plank, continue to step 3.

3. Repeat the steps outlined above to make your way back into plank pose. Ensure that the block is at the medium height on the mat directly underneath your chest. Inhale and lower your knees down to the mat. Exhale and continue to hug the triceps in toward the midline as you bend the elbows toward a 90-degree angle, coming to rest your chest on the block. Inhale to press back up to your hands and knees and take rest in child’s pose for five or more breaths. If this Chaturanga prep felt good and you continue to feel strong, repeat it again, this time hovering the chest an inch or two above the block. To challenge yourself further, practise staying in this pose for an extra breath or two.

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Continue to practise Chaturanga with your knees down on the mat until you feel strong enough to proceed. Remember that you might even need to stay with this variation for a few months before you feel ready to move on to practice the same move with straight legs. Be honest with yourself and never rush into anything that does not feel right.

4. To try the straight-leg variation with the block underneath the chest, repeat step 2. Inhale to prepare. On the exhale, with the legs strong and inner thighs firmly pressing up toward the ceiling, start to bend your elbows toward a 90-degree angle, with the arms hugging in toward the midline. Continue to lift up through the core as you work to gently lengthen the tailbone toward your feet. Hover the chest above the block and if it feels good, hold the pose for an extra breath or two. To come out, either press up to high plank, with the entire body engaged (see step 2), or simply press back to the hands and knees. Rest in child’s pose for five or more breaths.

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Repeat this until you start to feel stronger. Again, you may need to continue practising with a block for a while. Honour your body and the work will pay off.

5. To move into the full version of Chaturanga, start in high plank. On an inhale, bring the heart forward, keeping the shoulders and elbows over the wrists. With a strong core and legs to support you in the pose, leading with the heart and gazing toward the front of the mat, start to hug in the elbows toward the midline of the body as you exhale and bend the elbows toward a 90-degree angle. Hover here as you inhale, imagining the block positioned under your chest. Do not allow your shoulders to lower past the elbows!!! On an exhale, still keeping the core and legs in the same position, straighten the arms to return to high plank. Bring the knees down and press back to Child’s Pose to rest for five or more breaths. To challenge yourself further, hover in Chaturanga for an extra breath or two before pressing back up to high plank.

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Here is a video of a slower transition from plank to Chaturanga, and back up to high plank.

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, keep practising and always honour your amazing body!

Namaste.

Katia

Dharma Wanderlust