Hello friends of my friend! A little over five years ago Katie and I spent a great deal of time together as we completed our yoga teacher training with Carson Efrid Westerlund at Evolve Yoga. We then both relocated to the Rocky Mountains, Katie to Colorado and myself to Utah, where we have taught this beautiful style of Prana Vinyasa Flow™ Yoga. After these years, we have both felt to inspired to write regularly about our practice. Katie has established this beautiful website and blog and I have invited myself to share some bits of writing and reflection with you. I hope that you enjoy my words from afar and take every opportunity to practice in person with Katie.
It doesn’t take much time on a yoga mat to notice that what you do on the mat relates to regular life. Yogic philosophy sees that what applies in a small situation (the microcosm, e.g your body/self) also plays out in the big picture (the macrocosm, e.g. the universe). Because yoga practice can teach each of us about much more than just how to stretch muscles, what you do on your yoga mat is influenced by the same forces at play in the universe.
On your mat, balancing on one foot in vrksana/tree pose, requires grounding your foot into the mat while drawing the foot of the bent leg and the core muscles to the mid-line causing your upper body and crown to rise. Your arms reach up into the space above while you respond to the unpredictable releases of energy that can make you feel wobbly. In the natural world, tree roots burrow into the earth supporting the whole tree and draw water up to nourish and hydrate the tree. The sunlight warms the buds in spring and feeds the leaves in summer. The breeze rustles the leaves and moving branches through the space in which the tree grows. For the past six months I have dedicated my yoga practice and teaching to understanding the five yogic elements:
These elements are easy to see and feel in the natural world. With a more subtle attention will find them in your own body, psyche, and attitude.
Earth is the ground we walk on, the dirt we build in, the soil we grow crops in. It is solid. Steady as granite mountains. Pruthivi provides structure in the body: bone, teeth, muscle, tendon, and skin.
An earth based yoga practice moves strong and steady. The predictable rhythm provides support and structure balancing the chaotic, ever changing nature of modern householder life. Postures low to the earth open to the hips. As my student-friends and I explored our way through the Prana Vinyassa™ Earth Element Practice, we delightedly re-discovered how good simple postures and movements feel: the support mula bhanda gives, the length of the “posture muscles” created by bowing the head, the way a more shallow forward fold stretches a tight hamstring.
Earth supports and nurtures all creation. It is the form in which the soul is placed to experience all.
Earth gives structure and form to water: water brings life to arid earth and fills stream beds, river deltas, and beaches. Water even creates form in the earth: sea caves, river channels, the Grand Canyon.
Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it.
Water makes up nearly 70% of the body: blood, lymph, saliva, inter- & intra-cellular fluid, cerebral-spinal fluid. With all that water, the human body is made to flow. Undulating movements restore and refresh. Almost all yoga asana can be performed rigidly or fluidly. My student-friends enjoy bringing the flowing fluid nature of apasa to practice. At first the intention to move the spine in an graceful wave like arc in down-dog or table can feel awkward and unachievable, but the ease and fluidity of the motion makes it one of our favorites.
Fire warms. Fire grows and glows, radiates, ignites, purifies, transforms. Fire illuminates. Like holiday luminaries, my student-friends who explored the yogic element of fire/agni with me recently, radiated light from their whole selves.
Fire digests and transforms: food in the belly, experiences in the heart, and the unseen/spiritual in the eyes. Agni gives light to the eyes. With bright eyes one sees clearly in the dark or through the fog obscuring a path, a relationship, or an undertaking.
Within a well-tended heart fire reside passion, creativity, drive, ambition, and intuition, the inner teacher. Fire un-kept may consume or flicker. An unbalanced heart-fire burns on more destructive forces: anger, greed, striving. Within a dying fire of the heart are found lethargy, apathy, disinterest. Fire tended may endure.
The physical fire practice often focuses on core strength used for arm balances. But inspired by Shiva Rea’s elementals practice, we explored the transformative power of twisting. Wringing out through the core can stoke the fires of digestion — increasing the body’s ability to transform food to energy. Twisting can change your view of the world. Literally with your gaze in a different position than usual and more esoterically as your gut feelings can transform confusion to intuition.
Air moves lightly and unpredictably, like the wind. The air element resides in the heart region of the body. The physical practice of the Hridya Namaskar, taught by Shiva Rea, emphasizes the physical preparation to open the heart — stretching the side waists, strengthening the quads, opening the front gate of the hip, supporting the heart with toned belly and cradling shoulder blades. The fluid, waving, swaying movements of various body parts (known as body vinyasas) employed in the Vayu practice encourage the heart region to unfurl and float in its true nature: expanding with compassion and love, contracting with respect, reverence, and confidence.
I recently read that the ancient Indians considered the heart the center of conscious thought. Heartfelt actions and intentions create a sincere, true life. Courage of conviction, the love of God, self, and others all arise in and flow out of the heart.
In my early adult years I spent time in Texas along the border with Mexico. While there I came upon a cemetery full of colorful statues the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus of the Sacred Heart among the most common. While the imagery of the Sacred Heart is not a part of my religious tradition, I have come to love the way this icon depicts the heart as the most important (eye catching) and the source of light the spreads out from the heart to enlighten the whole body and the space around it. This depiction of the rays of light moving out from the heart in all directions is the one that arises as I meditate on the home of the air element — the heart.
Space is the most esoteric, least easily seen, of the elements. The void where there is room for all else. All of the elements exist within the element of space. My favorite creation story include the line “there is space there.” I find that it often applies in my yoga practice. Whether wringing out a deep twist, squatting deeply into the hips, or lifting my toes in a handstand, the feeling of finding space and length is the reward — the hidden gem — of practice. Even better is the feeling of space in my mind. A good yoga practice sweeps away the clutter and worry, restoring my time by releasing all that worry and obligation that no longer serve me.
Build your asana out of elements and you will find room for all the stability, flexibility, passion, compassion that you need. Use these building blocks in your other endeavors off the mat and you’ll construct situations, relationships, and attitudes you desire.