Working on the Vertical Axis

by Barrie Risman

One way to think about the different modes of practice I wrote about last week is to think of them as working on the vertical vs. on the horizontal planes. The flow practice, moving through a series of many postures holding each for a few breaths, approaches yoga practice on the horizontal axis. We may practice a wide range of postures without going very deeply into any of them. In contrast, the alignment-based practice can be considered a vertical approach, taking a few postures and penetrating them more deeply in different ways. I once spent the entire morning of a workshop (3 hours) working on the balance of the feet in Tadasana.

This type of work deconstructs the component parts of a pose and explores  similar forms and actions in other poses. For example, in teaching Vasisthasana, I sequence related poses like Supta Padangusthasana, Anantasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana to teach the actions of Vasisthasana. As a result of the connected actions, the final pose is more deeply understood.

I also sometimes take one action within a pose and explore it from different angles. Continuing to use Vasistasana as an example, I explore how the work of the bottom and weight-bearing arm is refined in other hand-balancing poses.

Here is a vertical exploration of Tadasana. Follow these instructions, or if you prefer, listen to the audio version.

Tadasana (Mountain Pose)tadasana

Set a timer for 5 minutes.

  • Stand with your feet parallel, the center of the heels in line with the center of the sitting bones and the toes pointing straight ahead. Connect with your breath.
  • Lift your toes and broaden across the ball mounds of your feet from big toe mound to little toe mound. Replace the toes back down to the floor.
  • Notice where the weight is on your feet.  Gently rock back and forth on your feet 2 or 3 times and find  the balance point between front and back, where the centre of gravity on your feet is toward the front part of heel. As you find this place of balance, feel the weight of your legs releasing down into your feet.
  • Now, keeping the weight of the body releasing down through the front of the heel, ground the feet evenly through the four corners. Press down through the big toe mound and the inner heel. Press the base of the little toe down and the outer heel. When you feel that these four corners are weighted evenly on the floor, lift the arches of the foot in a way that lifts the inner ankle bones without over-gripping the sole of the foot. Notice if you are clenching your toes and if so, extend them forward from the base of the toes through the tips.
  • Continue to draw the energy of the legs up from the soles of the feet, up through the lower legs. Pull the kneecaps up toward the thighs and firm the thigh muscles in a way that takes the tops of the thighs back and softens the groins. Keeping that action in the thighs, contract the hamstrings and your outer hips to draw the tailbone in and tone the low belly. Notice your breath and release it if necessary.
  • From the tone of the low belly, stretch the torso out of the pelvis, and extend the spine upward. Expand the breath and stretch the sides of the rib cage up as well as the back of the rib cage.  Lift the chest. Broaden across the collarbones widening from the top of the sternum out through the arms.
  • Take the tops of the arms back and feel your shoulder blades connect firmly onto your back, supporting the inner lift. Without losing the inner lift, stretch down into your fingertips. Feel the back of the body and the front of the torso extending up evenly from pelvis up through the shoulders.
  • If you feel the mid-back shortening, release the front of your ribcage down toward your navel and lift the back of the diaphragm with the breath.
  • Lengthen up through the neck, feeling the throat spacious and open. Soften the skin of the throat.
  • Gently move the head until you find the position where the skull feels effortlessly balanced on top of the spine. Soften your gaze and return to your breath.
  • As you stand quietly, feel the wholeness of the body’s effort and the fullness of your breath.
  • As the timer goes off, exhale and gently release.

I encourage you to continue to practice any part of this exploration throughout your day and find opportunities to remember elements of Tadasana: waiting for the bus, in line at the grocery store, or sitting at your desk.

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