Breath and the Body

Seven yoga postures to invigorate the meditative mind from Frank Jude Boccio.

Frank Jude Boccio; Illustrations Timothy Collins

Downward Facing Dog

Timothy  CollinsFrom Cat/Cow, tuck your toes under and, reaching up and back with your sitting bones, straighten your legs into Downward Facing Dog. You may wish to keep your knees slightly bent at first and emphasize extending your back. Playfully explore the pose, stretching out the right calf by reaching the right heel to the floor, feeling the sensations as you linger here, breathing, and then alternate and stretch out the left leg. If you decide to alternate back and forth, coordinate with the breath and note the tendency of the mind to wander in the face of repetition.

Once you choose to straighten both legs, stay in the posture for anywhere from eight to fifteen breaths, staying alert to sensations, any mental formations that arise, as well as how the experience continuously changes. We tend to speak about “holding” the postures, but notice how there actually is no fixed thing to hold onto. Moment by moment, breath by breath, the posture is continuously re-created. The Dog of the first breath is not the same as the Dog of the sixth breath.

With practice, we begin to see that this is true not only for this asana, and all the other asanas, but also for all our experiences. We come to see that we are not the same “person” when we come out of the posture that we were when we went into it.

Mountain

Timothy  CollinsAnother of the meditation postures singled out by the Buddha, Mountain is too often perceived as just something we do between the more important asanas, while in fact it is foundational for all the standing postures. Pressing the four corners of your feet (the ball of your big toe, the point directly below your inner ankle, the ball of your little toe, and the point directly below your outer ankle) into the ground, distribute the weight of your body evenly between both feet and centered just in front of your heels. Imagine the pelvis as a bowl with its rim level front to back and side to side. Let the spine rise up, keep the lower ribs from jutting out, gently lift the chest, and open the heart. Relax the shoulders, with your shoulder blades moving into and supporting your upper back. Keep the chin parallel with the floor, not tilted up or down, but gently drawn in so that your ears are centered over your shoulders.

See what happens as you simply stand there. Be awake to all the sensations that arise, the subtle swaying of the body, the movement of the breath. Is there boredom, impatience, or anticipation arising? Can you just be here? When you feel you’ve been here long enough, take another six to eight breaths and see what happens.

Warrior Two

Timothy  CollinsReach out to the sides with your arms parallel to the floor and step your feet apart so that they are directly under your fingertips. Turn your left foot in about 15 degrees and your right foot out 90 degrees. Without leaning forward, just bend the right knee toward a 90-degree angle so that the knee is directly over the ankle. Keeping your arms parallel to the ground, gaze out over your right hand.

As you breathe here, stay alert to changes in the quality of the breath, its depth and rate. As sensations begin to arise in your front thigh or in your shoulders, notice how the mind reacts with aversion, creating a “psychic amputation” as you tense around the sensations. See what happens to the quality of your experience if you stay with the breath while releasing this aversive tension. Notice the story lines that arise about what is happening and choose to just listen without grasping at any of them. Rather than solidifying the sensations into entities with which to do battle, embrace them with awareness. Notice, if you can, their conditioned, nonpersonal nature. With the letting go of aversion, and the self-identification, is there a qualitative difference in the experience? As one student put it, “There is a difference between discomfort and suffering.” The letting go of the mental anguish that we add to an experience is what the Buddha referred to as ceto-vimutti, “release of the mind,” a term often used in the Pali canon to signify enlightenment.

After doing both sides, come back to Mountain and just scan through the body, open to all that arises.

Seated Forward Bend

Timothy  CollinsSitting with your legs straight out in front of you, press the back of your thighs, calves, and heels evenly into the ground while

reaching through your heels and flexing your toes toward your head. Press your hands into the ground beside your hips as you lift the chest. Think of this as Mountain with a 90-degree bend in it. If your lower back rounds and your weight is coming onto your tailbone, sit up on a blanket or two so that you can get onto your sitting bones and allow the back to maintain its natural curvature. Grasp your feet or your shins, soften your groin and slightly rotate your thighs inwardly. Rather than trying to pull your torso onto your legs, lift your torso out over your legs, keeping the lower back from rounding. Those with tight hamstrings will feel this without having to bend very much forward. Let go of “grasping mind,” and be where you are. Eventually, those who are more flexible will draw the chest out onto the thighs, and the chin will come to rest on the shins.

Seated forward bends help cultivate a turning within and often come toward the end of an asana session. Feel the breath move within the body. Let go of any physical or mental tension. Surrender into the posture, and keep letting go of any clinging or aversion to the ever-changing phenomena. Notice how the attempt to prolong or create pleasant feelings is itself a form of tension, as is the act of resisting and pushing. Cultivate equanimity and compassion by staying open to all that arises.

When you are ready to come out of the pose, rest on your back, holding both knees into the chest. You may wish to take a gentle reclined spinal twist by letting the knees drop first toward one side of the body for a minute or so, and then toward the other side. When ready, rest in Corpse for a few minutes, letting the experience of the practice penetrate the body-mind. While asana practiced this way is indeed a form of meditation in action, sitting after asana practice is often a much more nourishing and satisfying endeavor. Why not try it now?

Frank Jude Boccio is the author of Mindfulness Yoga [Wisdom Publications, 2004]. For a list of teachers blending yoga with meditation visit www.tricycle.com.

All images: © Timothy Collins

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