By: Colleen Saidman Yee
The Buddha said, “I am not enlightened, I am merely awake.” What does it mean to be awake? Most of us spend our lives in relative states of “un-consciousness.” Sometimes we undergo a big, dramatic, once-in-a-lifetime awakening—such as a near-death experience—or we can occasionally experience subtler awakenings, such as hearing a story that resonates deep in our beings and creates a shift in consciousness.
But why leave “awakening” to some external act or story?
For me, yoga is a daily practice that gives us the tools to wake up, and in waking up, to overcome the obstacles that exist between ourselves and freedom, joy, and gratitude.
Three of yoga’s pillars are asana (postures), pranayama (breathwork), and meditation. These practices create clarity in our bodies and our minds. When you practice asana, you observe your physical habits: the way you stand in Mountain Pose, the tuck of your pelvis, the collapse of your chest, the position of your head. When you learn to align yourself, you notice how your habits take you out of balance and you begin to move towards physical symmetry. For instance, if you’ve sat at a computer for your whole career, your shoulders are likely rolled forward and your neck juts out; if you’ve carried babies on one hip, chances are that your pelvis is out of line. The practice of yoga trains the brain to “wake up,” to be in the present moment. It teaches you to observe what is happening right now, both physically and mentally. The practice of yoga demands that we stop and become aware of our mental and physical habits.
As you observe your physical habits, you’ll begin to notice your mental habits as well—the perpetual dialogue that is defining who you think you are, and keeping you on the hamster’s wheel, going round and round. All that chatter obstructs the true you. By spending time with our physical and mental patterns, we become conscious and mindful; gradually we may become able to smile, to let go, to change. Our bodies are intelligent—more a source of direct truth than our minds—but we rarely listen to the wisdom that’s buried in them.
When I discovered yoga in my late twenties, it was a revelation—a true “awakening.” I was a fashion model then; physically, I probably looked beautiful, but inside, I was a dilapidated house where no music was playing. I was insecure and desperately trying to be the woman I thought my then-husband would love. Thinking other people are better than you—whether it’s because you’re convinced they are smarter or prettier or more successful—is a habit, a form of self-hatred. It’s also a waste of energy. I cringe when I think about how jealousy turned me ugly. I wasn’t practicing yoga’s first ethical rule of ahimsa, or “non-harming.” I was harming myself.
Ironically, I did experience a literal “bolt” of awakening. Miserable with my life, I went on a canoe trip with my five brothers in Algonquin National Park in Canada. During the trip, a huge storm came up; all of us were struck by lightning. When I was in the arc of the electric current, I remember thinking, “I am in nature, I am with my family and I have known love—it’s O.K. for me to die.” That was a life-altering change in perspective. As terrifying and painful as it was, the experience has brought me to a new level of calm (except during storms). To have experienced a few minutes thinking that death was imminent was an awakening.
There were two messages the strike taught me: One is that this precious moment is all we have; the other is we shouldn’t take life so seriously.
Smaller, everyday, and possibly just as profound experiences of awakening to new perspective can come from a passing word, a book, a song, a class, or a poem. The experience of failure, betrayal, and disease can be powerful and painful teachings that could lead to an awakening. As Rumi says in his poem, “The Guest House”:
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Yoga tells us that that when our worlds get turned upside down, we may as well turn ourselves upside down. Poses called “inversions” allow you to see life from a different perspective. Inversions such as Handstand, Headstand, Forearm Stand, Shoulder Stand, and even Downward-Facing Dog sharpen and focus the mind. You can’t be obsessing about your insecurities or worrying about your to-do list when you’re in Handstand. You can’t be tending to emails or Instagramming while practicing Headstand.
Inversions are just the thing when your mind is spinning in an obsessive pattern and won’t give you any peace. They’re wonderful postures to do when you’re feeling mentally or physically stuck. I spent much of the last 16 months writing my new book, Yoga for Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom, and I can tell you that “stuck” now has a whole new meaning for me. Writing the book was “going upside down” for me. (I practiced a lot of inversions during that time!)
If I miss a flight and am ready to explode, I’ve been known to go into a bathroom in the airport and kick up into handstand. Or if I am bored at a dinner party, I’ll find a way to excuse myself and sneak in an inversion in the next room. I use them when I need an attitude adjustment, that’s my secret.
The following sequence will give you a taste of inversions. Even if you can’t balance on your hands or arms, there are many inversion poses that place your head below your heart and create similar benefits. They increase presence of mind and help to optimize the pineal, pituitary, and thyroid glands to create balance. Headstand and Shoulder Stand can also relieve constipation (which can be a physical manifestation of being “stuck”). (Potential contraindications for inversions include high blood pressure, glaucoma, and pregnancy.)
Relax and awaken to what is unfolding in the present moment. Noticing when you are not present is the first step towards unveiling the beauty that is waiting beneath the chatter.
Supported Downward-Facing Dog (adho mukha shvanasana)
Have a block handy. Fold into child’s pose (balasana), and reach your arms actively forward. Keep your hands and feet where they are, tuck your toes under, and lift your knees off the floor, pulling your hips back until your arms straighten. Then place the block on the floor at one of its three heights (low, middle, high), positioned under your forehead. Support the head in such a way that the ears are aligned between the arms. This is an inversion in which all four of your limbs are on the ground, so it doesn’t provoke much fear. But it can still be disorientating because you’re upside down. Stay in the pose for ten breaths. Then walk your feet forward and stand at the front of your mat.
Supported Wide-legged Standing Forward Bend (prasarita padottanasana)
Step your legs apart about three feet to the right. Put your hands on your hips, inhale, and lift your chest. Then exhale and fold forward. (If your head doesn’t easily touch the floor, put a block or two under it, to support it comfortably.) This is a simple inverted pose most people can do. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the most important yogis of the modern era, said it will give you ninety percent of the benefits of headstand, because it stimulates the pineal glands (which produce melatonin, a hormone that affects sleep patterns). The only thing missing will be the keen mental focus that’s required in headstand and other more challenging inverted poses. Keep your legs active and stay in the pose for ten breaths.
Handstand Preparation (adho mukha vrikshasana variation)
Press your hands against a wall and arrange yourself into a ninety-degree angle—arms and torso parallel to the floor (ears between the arms), legs perpendicular (so the heels are directly below the hips). Look at the floor and stay for five breaths. Remain here or go into…
Handstand at the wall (adho mukha vrikshasana)
Approach this pose from downward-facing dog, with your hands on the floor at shoulder width, about four inches away from the wall. Step your dominant leg forward, knee bent, and then on an exhale, swing the straight leg high into the air while pushing off the bent leg. You may not get all the way up, but the attempt will focus your mind. This is the safest of the inversions because there’s no weight on your neck and head. If you make it into handstand, stay for five breaths. Then come down with an exhale and sit on your heels.
Thunderbolt Pose (vajrasana)
Sit on your heels and hold the ends of a block between your palms. Lift it overhead, then bend your elbows and slide the block down your back. Hold for a few breaths, then raise the block overhead again and lower it toward your lap. Keeping the block between your hands, bring your elbows to touch each other, and lift your arms back over your head. Keep your elbows touching as you lift the block as high as you can. Stay for 5 breaths in each variation. This will prepare your shoulders for forearm stand.
Forearm Stand (pincha mayurasana) at the wall
Place a block on the floor against the wall. Kneel down and frame the block in the webbing between your thumb and index finger, thumbs pressing on the front side, fingers spreading to either side of the ends, palms down. Lift your hips into downward-facing dog variation (a), and lift one leg at a time into the air, as you simultaneously lift your head and look between your forearms at the floor. Stay for five breaths, then try to kick up (b) as instructed in Step 4. If you do get up, stay for ten breaths. This pose is more challenging than handstand because it’s more of a backbend and requires more openness in the shoulder joints.
Triangle Pose variation (trikonasana variation)
Stand at the front of your mat and step to the right about 31?2 feet, farther if you’re a little taller. Inhale moving your arms up and out, parallel to the floor. Turn your left foot in 15 degrees, and your right foot out 90 degrees. Inhale and strengthen your legs, then exhale and extend your torso to the right over the plane of the forward leg. Rest your right hand on the floor, on your right shin, or on a block just outside your right foot. Once in the pose, take your left hand behind your head and draw the elbow back to the midline. Turn your chest to the left while keeping your legs actively engaged. The legs are an important element of headstand, and triangle pose requires you to wake up and energize your legs in preparation for inversions. Stay for five breaths on each side.
Downward-Facing Dog variation (adho mukha shvanasana variation)
Come onto your forearms and knees and interlace your fingers. Press your inner wrists and elbows firmly into the floor and lift your hips into a downward-facing-dog variation. Drop your head and firm your shoulder blades against your back. Press the thighs back strongly, hold for ten breaths, and then release into child’s pose.
Headstand I (shirshasana I)
This pose is for the intermediate or advanced student. Interlace your fingers and press the base of your palms together. Press your inner elbows and wrists actively into the floor, then lightly rest the crown of your head on the floor with the back of your head against the bases of your palms. Squeeze your legs together, bend your knees, and bring both heels to the sit bones at the same time—not one at a time, which could strain your neck. Then straighten your legs into the air and squeeze them strongly together. Use the strength of your arms and legs to lift weight off your neck and into headstand. It’s O.K. to use the wall to support this pose, but make sure your knuckles are touching it. If headstand isn’t an option, do a wide-legged standing forward bend. Stay in headstand for twenty breaths if the pose is easy, ten if not.
Child’s Pose (balasana)
Sit on your heels, spread your knees wide, and fold forward, front of the torso on the thighs, head on the floor. Then place your chin on a block to reset the natural curves of the neck. Take your arms forward and come up onto the pads of your fingers. Stay for the same length of time that you spent in headstand.
Supported Bridge Pose, with legs in the air (raised-legs setu bandhasana)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Lift your pelvis and place a block at the lowest height under your sacrum. Raise your legs into the air (arms are alongside of the body with palms pressing into the floor). If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees slightly. Stay for twenty breaths. This is an inversion that cools the nervous system from the fire of the other inversions and balances the thyroid and hormones.
Article also featured in Best Self Magazine.