All of life is dependent on relationship. The earth’s pull towards the sun has enabled animate life to thrive for millions of years, giving us day and night, the atmosphere, flora and fauna, all created out of the distinct nature of this bond.
On a human scale, our birth, our ability to move on on two legs, and even our demise is due to Mother Earth holding us close. Gravity is the longest and most constant physical relationship we have over our lifetime. In simple terms, the concept of the attraction between two or more things exists, even microscopically. We are drawn towards sights, smells, sounds and ideas alike, but while the orbits of the planets are fixed, the pulls of the sensory world change continually. Certain people and things captivate us in one moment, and lose their attraction the next. Uncontrolled, these mental fluctuations (chitta vrittis) can drag us into a complicated web of strains and twists known as the cycle of suffering, or samsara. In this state, we are not present. People around us go unnoticed, the things we think and do are unconscious. We are preoccupied, so the earth’s downward pull may be forgotten about until over time, we begin to feel heavy, as if we are fighting gravity rather than dependent on it for our survival. We become disconnected; disembodied.
Gravity comes from the Latin root gravis, meaning heavy, or weighted. Someone with ‘gravitas’ is grounded, steadfast. There is a clarity in their purpose, and that purpose acts as a ‘fixed point’ around which they orbit. Yoga asana is an extra-ordinary fixed point; it re-establishes our physical relationship with the earth so that we may be more present in the world, awakened and uplifted. Yoga means to yoke or merge; asana means seat, or connection to the earth.
The practice begins with an interaction between our body and the earth. As we explore the opposition of force between the planet’s downward pull and our inherent capacity to rise up, gravity is a constant for our semi-fixed movements. Through observation of the inhale and exhale, the mind establishes a relationship with the breath, and as both become more aligned and equanimous, we begin to find more subtle interplay of energy in the form of ujjayi breath and a system of locks (bandhas) in the body that enable us to direct energy. Ujjayi means victory, which we gain over the unconscious mind by focusing on this guttural breath combined with the energetic lock of mula (root) bandha (lock). Mula bandha is located in the pelvic floor, and is the first port of call to stop the downward pranic flow. When breath and bandha are applied, a vacuum in the body is created, drawing the prana (breath, life force) upward like a suction; we stand up more deliberately. More importantly, this conscious effort brings presence, and the tendrils of other thoughts dissolve. It may be only an instant, at first, but it is a moment full of wonder, full of joy. As time stands still, there is no need to do anything other than to simply be; no projections, no judgements.
By practicing breath and bandha with asana, we cultivate our ability to ‘be here now’ while taking the shapes of other earth-bound beings: connecting our feet down into the earth and reaching the crown of the head up to the heavens we form a mountain; pressing toenails, legs and hips down like a snake tail, our cobra head rises off the ground. Sthira (steadiness) comes with a controlled mind and a body capable of grounding down and expanding in opposition. As our awareness extends beyond our physicality, we have more room to travel inwards, unravelling old ideas about self and other. We may even consider where we end and where others begin. After all, we share the same air, we walk on the same terrain; we derive prana from the same sun and we sleep under the same moon. In fact, we may discover that we are no longer the ‘doers’ taking a shape, and as we become the asana, we see sameness. In this transformational moment there is a divine order in mind, breath and body; we are in and of the world, at the same time connected to the earth and the heavens.
There is a Serbian proverb that says “Be humble, you are made of the earth. Be noble for your are made of stars.” Asana practice is an invitation to remember this. As we gain access to the subtle, unseen forms of energy, we better understand even our thoughts are a form of energy. When we offer our prana up to the happiness (sukha) of all beings and our intention is to serve all, we can better rest into the earth’s support, gaining the confidence to expand to something greater than ourselves, toward the sun, moon and stars. Some may call this gravitating to God, others may find goodness through gravity.
Asana with Mula Banda and Ujjayi Breath. Find a comfortable seat. Close eyes, relax face and find a tall spine, aligning crown of head over the pelvic floor. Exhale the air out and apply mula bandha, the root lock, by lifting the pelvic floor – for a woman lift vaginal walls in and up; for a man it is a lift of the peritoneum. Inhale through the nose, exhale opening the mouth making the ‘haaaa’ sound. Next breath inhale through nose, exhale through mouth closing the mouth half way. This time inhale and exhale through the nose, looking for a soft whisper sound at the back of the throat; this is ujjayi breath. Bring the hands to the heart, with breath and bandha offer up your life force to a great purpose, to serve all.