Why Do Asana? Part 2

I’ve been reading an intriguing book by science writer, Annie Murphy Paul. The
Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (2022) gathers and
analyzes the recent work of cognitive scientists demonstrating how we “think”
and perceive not just with our brains, but also with our entire body (embodied
cognition), our shared spaces (situated cognition) and our relationships with
others (distributed cognition). This isn’t just another book recognizing the reality
of “gut feelings”, but instead a deep dive into what exactly that might mean and
how we can specifically use this recent science to enhance our ability to learn
and, particularly, to think creatively.
Although Paul never mentions yoga, I’ve been struck by her reports of recent
studies and the terminology that has resulted. “Interoception”, a word scientists
are using to refer to our awareness of the inner state of our bodies, is something
yoga instructors constantly urge. We ask (or should ask) ourselves how does a
certain asana or movement make us feel? Even when most of us don’t turn our
awareness inward, she documents numerous studies showing that we engage in
“nonconscious information acquisition”, particularly when we significantly move
our bodies. Many of her insights in this area are linked simply with walking
(Thoreau’s “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin
to flow)”. But she also devotes an entire chapter to the role of “gesture”
(movement of hands, arms and body), citing studies which show that actively
gesturing on our part not only allows us to better communicate with others
(particularly children), but can be closely associated with what and how well we
(and our children) learn from others as well.
It got me thinking: Can we start to somehow equate asana practice with gesture?
When we ask ourselves why we do warrior pose in a certain shape, might it be
that previous teachers have noticed that such shape communicates with us better
than others? Or that the posture stimulates interoception or at least the impetus
to focus our awareness on bodily feeling? When we wonder or worry about the
historicity of yoga, might certain asana in fact be simply gestures from former,
accomplished teachers that instruct us across time without the use of voice or
words? And don’t get me started about mudras or a vigorous power yoga class!
Questions, questions, questions! Come join us for more at Inside/Out!
Kerry Wilson 3.31.22

Bound Tree Pose

Bound Tree Pose


I now have a lot of yoga books. But when I started doing yoga many, many moons ago, there were very few books explaining or illustrating asana practice (and precious fewer discussing pranayama or chakra anatomy). The Vishnudevananda and Iyengar folks put out several seminal works in the 1960s and 1970s that contained LOTS of postures and since then of course there have been thousands of books stoking that flame. But there’s one posture that really feels good to me that I’ve never seen illustrated or discussed in print. I’ll try to describe it here.


“Bound tree pose” is a variation of vrksasana, commonly known as just “tree pose”.  In the latter, you stand on one leg with the bottom of the opposing foot placed somewhere on the inside of the standing leg. In many ways, this is the ultimate balance posture, depending, as they all do, on your alignment, (in this case) leg and foot strength and your constant attention to and sensory dialogue with gravity. Common variations usually involve your arms, with palms together at your chest, your arms spread wide for better balance, or arms overhead reaching your entire body upward. Each of these arm positions materially affect your center of gravity, making it harder or easier to maintain the posture.


To perform the bound variation, begin balancing on your right leg, and bring the top of your left foot into your right hand so that the left knee is pointed down-ward and your left heel is nestled at the top of your right thigh. Maintaining that grip, stand up straight and feel the whole of your right foot really anchor into the floor while your left knee comes close to your right knee. Your left hand can remain at your waist or (here comes the bi nd) snake across your back so that it takes hold of the inside of your right elbow, probably causing your spine to arch a bit and your shoulder blades to come closer together. Again, think about standing up straight, upwardly extending the trunk another inch and keeping your ribs soft, not jutting out. Hold for however long you’d like and then, as Mr. Kaminoff would say, repeat on the other side so that you don’t go to yoga hell.


This, I think you will find, is a very solid posture. If regular tree pose, with arms overhead, is like an elegant pine tree or swaying aspen, bound tree pose is like a large oak stump, immovable perhaps. And it is a more stable position in which to consider your proprioception (close your eyes if you’d like). If, like me, you have a tight shoulder girdle, it’s an opportunity to loosen that underwear. You might also find that the sore knee of the lifted leg gets a gentle stretch while all the other muscles stabilizing the standing knee get a good workout. Consider how this pose may prepare you for lotus. Observe the movement of your diaphragm-led body and the calm attention you must pay to maintain a dynamic balance. 


Got a favorite asana? Practice it joyfully but don’t overdo it. Like many yoga positions, deeper and more frequent is not necessarily better and better. 


Kerry Wilson 


Wind Relieving Pose, Really??

OK, let’s get down to yoga’s skillful means of increasing happiness–in this case
assistance with the removal of gaseous formations within the digestive tract.
Usually the result of a brew of food, consumed liquids and gastric juices
(collectively, the great word “chyme”), exacerbated by sedentary behavior,
digestive gas can build up in the stomach and/or intestines in a way that hinders
healthy peristaltic action. These gas “bubbles” can be uncomfortable, relieved
only by burping (an upward movement) or “breaking wind” (a downward
movement). If relief does not occur, this lack of movement can result in
increasingly uncomfortable constipation.
Yoga asana is a quite practical and direct approach to living in the world, and
several postures and related movement can often lead to remarkable results
when it comes to removing unwanted gas. Quite aptly referred to as “wind
relieving” poses, various positions that focus on squeezing, churning and twisting
the abdominal area promote escape of these gases (while also promoting healthy
digestion overall). Grasping and ungrasping (pumping) your front thighs to your
chest (“apana” pose), raising one knee at a time toward your nose (and strongly
extending the other leg’s heel), spinal twists like “big toe” pose and Lord of Fishes,
and even bridge pose and “two-legged table pose”, are almost guaranteed to
supplement and stimulate peristaltic action and remove gas to outside the body.
Not surprisingly perhaps, a strong downward dog can be a dramatic finale to a
series of these postures, often producing an audible announcement of success.
Accordingly, if shy, it’s often best to concentrate on these exercises in private
although its perfectively acceptable to make a not overly flamboyant sound in
class if followed by a quiet yet cheerful “Excuse me”.
Just an aside: Pursuant to my curious inquiry about her “secret” to long life, a very
healthy 90 plus year-old woman, not familiar with yoga, recently told me that she
grasps her knees to her chest and rocks sideways, back and forth, “at least 50
times” before she gets out of bed each morning. Said she had done this for over
60 years and attributed much of her good health to the practice. Another example of                                                       how yoga can be practice anywhere and be adopted into everyday routine.  Try it sometime!


Kerry Wilson 3.3.22